Merry Last Christmas, Jack Dorsey.
On Wednesday, November 29, 2017, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, woke up and started his day by retweeting three anti-muslim videos from a British fascist organization. To say he did this because he agreed with the viewpoints expressed in the videos isn’t controversial. It may be somewhat controversial to say this makes him a fascist sympathizer. But only if you haven’t been paying attention. Donald Trump is a fascist sympathizer.
This happened on Twitter. Again, that’s not a shock. That’s where Donald Trump engages his fan base. (And leaders of foreign nations like North Korea.) It’s where he’s his most unhinged.
Twitter reacted to the retweets of November 29 and their subsequent backlash by tripping over its own dick. Again, not a shock. For a company that traffics in outrage, Twitter appears to have a very hard time figuring out what to do when the outrage it covets shows up at its door. First, a Twitter representative tweeted out that the videos, which were extremely violent in nature, didn’t violate their rules because “…to help ensure people have an opportunity to see every side of an issue, there may be the rare occasion when we allow controversial content.” Oof.
A day later Jack Dorsey tweeted out “We mistakenly pointed to the wrong reason we didn’t take action on the videos from earlier this week.” He then claimed the videos didn’t violate their current media policy. Without elaborating on what that media policy was. My guess? He has no idea what the current media policy is. He still doesn’t. He never has. He then promised to roll out a new set of rules designed to curb the amount of hate groups, hate symbols, and harassment on the platform. Those changes were rolled out on Monday, December 18.
Among the changes, swastikas are now banned from Twitter. That’s a good move. I applaud it, and it’s beyond time. However, the Confederate flag, a hate symbol that defines one race’s desire to own another race, is still acceptable. Twitter’s reason is that the Confederate flag is historical. But so is the swastika. This decision seems less based on principles, but more on a desire to not piss off a certain group.
Despite their sanctimonious appeal to “principles”, Twitter appears to be making decisions based on who they’re afraid to (or can’t afford to) piss off and then backwards engineering the rationale to make it palatable. That’s not principled. That’s cynical.
The new policy also allows a thinly veiled loophole for Trump:
This policy does not apply to military or government entities and we will consider exceptions for groups that are currently engaging in (or have engaged in) peaceful resolution.
For all his promises about wanting to reduce the amount of hate and violence and harassment on the platform, Jack Dorsey has purposely built in a loophole for the biggest perpetrator of all those things. That’s not principled. It’s cowardly. And it’s dangerous. We’ve got a sitting US President using a social network to provoke a war with a foreign power.
Jack Dorsey has promised changes to the platform before. Usually after an embarrassing episode where a celebrity gets harassed. Hey, if that’s what it takes, fine. Unfortunately, the promises quickly turn into vaporware, or smoke and mirror offers of rounded avatars, more characters to harass people with, and threading. None of which solves Twitter’s main problem, which is that it’s a nuclear bomb powered by a cowardly unprincipled boy king working part-time.
It’s time to judge Jack Dorsey by his actions and not his promises. And his actions are lacking.
A year ago when I started tweeting with Jack about this shit, he agreed to meet with me in person. I give him a lot of credit for doing this. And we met. It was respectful. My mother taught me how to be a good guest in someone’s home. And he was a good host. We discussed all the fears I had about how Trump and the fascists (I refuse to say alt-right, that’s a bullshit term) would use Twitter to harass and silence others. We discussed Twitter’s role in the world stage. And I admired his vision, but feared his approach. Jack, and to an extent Twitter’s pet porg Biz Stone, have always believed that absolute free speech is the answer. They’re blind to the voices silenced by hate and intimidation. The voices that need to be protected. But anyone who’s ever tended a garden knows that for the good stuff to grow, you have to deal with the bad stuff. You can’t let the weeds choke the vegetables. You’ll go hungry.
I walked into that meeting worried that Jack didn’t have the leadership qualities to guide Twitter through the shitstorm to come. I walked out of it assured of that.
I walked away from that meeting feeling like Jack was in over his head. Time has borne that out. Few people on Earth have the experience to deal with a company of this scope. But I can’t help thinking that someone from a marginalized group would at least have a better idea of the danger signals. I can’t help but draw a comparison to George W. Bush whose lifelong dream was to be baseball commissioner. Instead, he was pushed to being an ineffectual president. Jack came very close to leaving Twitter in its infancy to become a dressmaker. I believe Jack would’ve been a good dressmaker. (This isn’t a slight. My mother’s a dressmaker.)
I believe Jack would’ve been a good dressmaker.
Twitter isn’t a technology company. It’s a human interaction company. I’m not sure they’ve ever understood that. And that’s the generous assumption. More likely, and alarmingly, they understand that but don’t care. And while a lot of this falls on Jack’s head—after all his name’s on the shingle—you also need to take a look at the people who put him in that position. The Twitter board has allowed this to happen. They are also complicit. Their job is to help the captain steer the ship. To offer guidance. One wonders if their guidance has been “fascists or not, they’re driving engagement”, because that seems to be Twitter’s governing force. So it’s fair to examine the governing body.
It’s also fair to look at the overall system in place. Because Twitter isn’t an isolated case. The ethical chickens of Silicon Valley have come home to roost this year. And in most situations what we’re seeing is that Silicon Valley, which is very good at evaluating technology, sucks at evaluating human interaction. They’re very good at pushing their companies towards how to do things, but seldom ask whether those things should or shouldn’t be done. We’re seeing the results of that now, as companies like Twitter and Facebook are coming to terms with what exactly it is they broke by moving fast.
Silicon Valley’s time is almost up. So Merry last Christmas to them.
“Historians have a word for Germans who joined the Nazi party, not because they hated Jews, but out of a hope for restored patriotism, or a sense of economic anxiety, or a hope to preserve their religious values, or dislike of their opponents, or raw political opportunism, or convenience, or ignorance, or greed.
That word is Nazi. Nobody cares about their motives anymore.”
— Julius Goat
Yesterday, Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed published an excellent piece about Twitter’s inability to interpret its own rules while dealing with another fascist, Milo Yiannopoulos, back in 2016. (This is a common theme for Twitter.) You should read it. In it, he quotes a Jack Dorsey email where Jack is quoting Gandhi to his employees: “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
Here, Jack is right. Or rather, Gandhi is right. We mustn’t lose faith in humanity. But Twitter isn’t humanity. It’s a venture-backed tool that profits off human connections without really understanding how they work. It’s not an ocean. The more apt metaphor would be a bloodstream. And while a single turd doesn’t spoil an ocean, a single cancer cell in the bloodstream will spread and attack every healthy cell it encounters. For too long Jack has allowed the cancer of fascism to spread through Twitter’s bloodstream.
As of this writing, despite Twitter’s new anti-harassment rules, Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, Joey Gibson, and David Duke are still on the platform. All known fascists. Ta-Nehisi Coates is not. Driven off by Richard Spencer’s harassment. These are the voices we are losing because Jack Dorsey has chosen not to act. And it is probably too late. That’s not hyperbolic. Jack has given Donald Trump the fuse to light a nuclear war. Jack has given Trump’s minions the fuse to silence the voices America most needs at this moment. And Silicon Valley has allowed this to happen because their libertarian allegiance doesn’t extend beyond their own pricks.
Merry last Christmas, Jack. To paraphrase James Baldwin, you have not earned your death. Yet you’ve mortgaged all of ours. Your inability to make a courageous decision has left us with precious few to make ourselves.
Whether it’s fair to blame you for the last Christmas we all spend on Earth together or not, Jack, I firmly believe that you had an opportunity to stop it. Sadly, you didn’t have the fortitude to do so. You’ve failed. Please know you’ve fucked the world.
Have yourself a very Merry Christmas, Jack.
Illustrations in this article are by John Hanawalt, who’s amazing. Editorial insight by the equally amazing Arjun Basu.