I thought to myself: I am wiser than this man; neither of us probably knows anything that is really good, but he thinks he has knowledge, when he has not, while I, having no knowledge, do not think I have.
As has been laid out, speech has for centuries been the tool by which individuals could, as Frederick Douglass once said, give tongue to interesting thoughts within one’s own soul that would otherwise die from lack of utterance (TRT 1073). Rhetorical speech, more importantly free rhetorical speech, has been the cornerstone of what the founding fathers termed: the great experiment called the United States of America; a country where free speech is built directly into the founding documents so as to avoid curtailment by Governmental entities that are built around power and are run by men afflicted by the human condition, as we all are. In any republic, where the people are foundationally involved in promoting its longevity, the many open forums within give opportunities for the people to engage in open exchange of interesting thought and expression, employing the persuasive nature of rhetorical discourse. The very point of rhetorical discourse is to use speech, syntax, and even sentence structure and presentation to influence the beliefs of someone else, to bring them to one’s own side or to negotiate mutually beneficial outcomes for society as a whole (TRT 5-7). That is an acceptable operation of rhetoric; to employ influence. Though Plato would be critical of that fact, it bears pointing out that in a modern society, one must be versed in using the rhetorical power at their disposal, for good negotiation societally. And it is perfectly correct to say that we of the citizenry are in a continual rhetorical negotiation with one another on a daily basis.
Both in the time of Plato and in the time of America’s founding, rhetorical negotiation was lauded and allowed to flourish (TRT 80). There was a recognition that only through discourse could outcomes be determined or could ideas be shared adequately; but only if speech was left unimpeded. It is ideas of this kind that have led to the proliferation of social media conglomerates of the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and others as compliments to the more traditional news media formats. These platforms, that have flourished as a result of the freedoms offered almost exclusively in America, appear to all allow the misuse of rhetorical practice to go unchecked, on their own. News media using rhetorical freedoms to misdirect, while social media companies seem to all go the route of limiting that free exercise of rhetorical speech, rather than allowing it to flourish freely.
In a way, they operate as sort of quasi-democratic governments, with leaders at the helm who impose rules and force desired behaviors upon the online communities of users— a sentiment Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, himself has acknowledged (United 2018). Now, to truly put this statement into the proper framework, we will look to Dorsey’s statements in front of a United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce, on September 5, 2018. In his statement to the committee, Dorsey touched on a few rhetorical points that deserve some analysis, in relation to the topic of speech expression within the platform: promoting health, openness, and civility of public conversation; not using political ideology to rank or prioritize posts; and Twitter’s four principles for a healthy public sphere. Dorsey expresses an intent to provide, through machine learning and custom-tailored algorithms, an online environment or “public square” where individuals can have safe engagements that encourage healthy debate and critical thinking. At one point he says,
We acknowledge that abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers occur… Historically, Twitter focused most of our efforts on removing content against our rules. Today, we have a more comprehensive framework that will help encourage more healthy debate, conversations, and critical thinking” (United 2018).
This statement sounds acceptable at first glance, and perhaps even Plato might agree. Where he would not agree, however, would be in the powerful imposing upon the people. He would encourage discourse, at all costs. In the age of information leading to knowledge, and knowledge being power, it stands to reason that whoever controls the flow of that information, can wield that power in any way they see fitting, as represented by Dorsey. He repeats this sentiment on more than one occasion and it is interesting that he does, in one major respect: echo chambers. From Dorsey’s own words, he aims to eliminate these echo chambers— or small spaces where similar beliefs are amplified and reaffirmed— and yet he undercuts that very goal by creating such chambers through use of his own algorithms and through what he calls his principles of a healthy public sphere, which he states only a few lines after this previous statement. The solution, is everyone on the platform having “shared attention, shared reality, variety, and receptivity” (United 2018). The verbiage Dorsey chooses to use here raises some questions for anyone who aims to think critically.
Firstly, if everyone has a shared attention and a shared reality, there can never be any true variety in the thought being discussed. Secondly, no one can possibly learn to be receptive of differing points of view, if they are never exposed to points of view that come from those whose “reality” does not match their own. This means the civility and honest discussion Twitter wishes to promote, suddenly becomes an impossibility. It seems that this is exactly how echo chambers are created, but this is not the only proof of this within Dorsey’s testimony. Dorsey tells the House committee that Twitter algorithms, “show individuals using the platform the most relevant information for that individual first… Twitter has also employed technology to be more aggressive in detecting and minimizing the visibility of certain types of abusive behaviors on our platform… Twitter strives to show content to people that we think they will be most interested in and that contributes meaningfully to the conversation” (United 2018). Another aspect to this is his reference to “abusive behaviors”. When looking into such behaviors on the Twitter terms of service page, as a rhetorical document, these behaviors are summed up by “behavior that is targeted at an individual or group of people, report has been filed by the target of the abuse or a bystander, the behavior is newsworthy and in the legitimate public interest” (Twitter 2018). What is concerning about this is, the word choices are somewhat ambiguous here. It is unclear what precisely Twitter deems as abusive behavior, leading one to believe that any action either reported or flagged by Twitter algorithms, would be subject to their subjective discretion of what they deem to be “abusive”. Twitter, according to Dorsey, heavily depends on behavioral signals to track how certain accounts behave in relation to others. Further, tweets that do not contribute to “healthy” discourse on the platform are thrown to the bottom of the “relevant content” list or removed from the site altogether (United 2018). The problem here is, and I believe Plato would agree, it should be left to the people to rhetorically negotiate what is acceptable to them, which is essentially done on other sites, through mechanisms of down-voting or disliking posts. Posts can also be scrolled past or ignored.
What is most interesting however, is Dorsey told Congress that the behavioral models that Twitter employs do not take political views or ideology under consideration when ranking posts on the site (United 2018).
In an interview with CNN he had this to say:
The problem with this is three-fold. Firstly, the CEO himself admitted to his own company’s political leaning in the interview, which is not in and of itself a problem unless there is a pattern of that bias being used against certain people. Secondly, in his testimony he says,
“We recognize that even a model created without deliberate bias may nevertheless result in biased outcomes. Bias can happen inadvertently due to many factors, such as the quality of the data used to train our models. In addition to ensuring that we are not deliberately biasing the algorithms, it is our responsibility to understand, measure, and reduce these accidental biases” (United 2018).
What is interesting here, is the phrase “quality of the data.” The quality of the data in any given algorithm is only as accurate and impactful as the human beings inputting such data, which leads into the third and final point which is this hearing came on the heels of public incensement from many individuals that Twitter, as a company, was intentionally silencing their voices, or shadow banning— that is, purposefully limiting the visibility of certain posts—because they may have held a political ideology or viewpoint on certain social topics that did not align with Twitter, as a company. In fact, prominent public voices have purportedly fallen victim to this, which was one major cause of the House Committee hearing (CNN 2018 ). What is striking here is Twitter, as a company that offers a service, believes it is its job, or rather its imperative, to take upon itself, the lofty goal of policing fairness. Twitter believes they are uniquely positioned, and perhaps they are, to influence the nature of civil discourse. Jack Dorsey himself commented on Twitter’s entire goal being to, “preserve their democracy”. The problem arises, however, with the idea that fairness can be achieved at all, in any meaningful way, that does not elevate the rights of some, but limit the rights of others. It seems impossible to ensure that everyone is content with the rhetorical discourse around them. In reality, this approach seems to encourage the proliferation of echo-chambers, mass blocking lists, and shadow banning— which Dorsey admits to existing on his platform, though fervently denying its perceived bias.