Twitter’s co-founder changes his mind: The media, not Twitter, is to blame for Trump

Twitter co-founder Evan Williams has nuanced his views on Donald Trump, and how much the social network had to do with the president’s election last November. In the original piece below, you’ll see he apologised for the company’s part in Trump’s election, but in an interview with The Today Programme, Williams was willing to take less of the blame than back in May.

“It’s not Donald Trump using Twitter that got him elected, even if he says so,” argued Williams. “It’s the quality of the information we consume that is reinforcing dangerous beliefs, and isolating people, and limiting people’s open-mindedness and respect for truth. There’s a media ecosystem that is supported and thrives on attention, period. And that is what’s making us dumber and not smarter.”

“Donald Trump is a symptom of that, but it’s not his using of Twitter, and I don’t think Twitter is at all the worst case of this. It’s the ad-driven media that churns stuff out on a minute-by-minute basis. And their only measure is whether someone clicks on it because that’s the only way they can make money. Therefore quoting Trump’s tweets, or quoting the latest, stupidest thing that any political candidate or anyone else says, is an effective way to exploit people’s base instincts, and that is dumbing the entire world down.”

That’s a serious rowing-back from Williams’ previous position, perhaps partly as protection against the growing narrative that Twitter is no longer the unambiguous force for good it was once viewed as. It’s become quite obvious that the company has no intention of banning Trump no matter how much he abuses the service, which is why there’s a campaign aiming to buy the company out.

At the same time, Williams’ argument isn’t wholly without merit. Journalists love Twitter, and use it far more than the population as a whole. This is mainly because it’s a great source of stories, and Trump is well aware of this. Twitter made it incredibly easy to embed tweets in stories, making it child’s play for the president to get his narrative across. Rather than going to the press, he can make the press come to him. At the very least, I’d call that an assist from Twitter, but your perspective may vary.

The original article continues below

Earlier this month, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was pretty defiant about giving a platform to Donald Trump, despite accusations of him breaking the terms of service. “I believe it’s really important to hear directly from our leadership,” he said. “And I believe it’s really important to hold them accountable. And I believe it’s really important to have these conversations out in the open, rather than have them behind closed doors. So if we’re all to suddenly take these platforms away, where does it go? What happens? It goes in the dark. And I just don’t think that’s good for anyone.”

Cynical types might argue that while it wouldn’t be good for anyone, it would be worst for Twitter, for whom Trump is a big-name draw. While the president writes the same kind of stuff on his Facebook, on Twitter it’s less filtered and more outrageous. They even use the president on their Japanese advertising.

Well, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams – who still sits on the company’s board of directors – is slightly more circumspect about social media’s involvement in landing a politically inexperienced, volatile reality TV star in the most powerful office in the world. In an interview with The New York Times, responding to Trump’s own claim that he wouldn’t be in the White House without Twitter, Williams responded: “It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that. If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”

More generally, he thinks the internet is broken, and he takes some responsibility for that: “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.”

Williams is aiming to change how the internet works and to move it away from rewarding extremes. In the New York Times interview, he uses the analogy of a car crash: if you’re driving and see a car crash, everyone looks, because you have to. The problem, as Williams sees it, is that the internet interprets that as though you want to see nothing but car crashes.

This isn’t a problem that’s going to be fixed anytime soon: “Twenty years isn’t very long to change how society works,” he says.

In the meantime, at least he’ll have plenty of case studies to work with. Trump’s most defensive fans aren’t taking kindly to his words. Unfortunately, they’re sending abuse to the wrong Evan Williams.

Which neatly demonstrates how Williams is onto something with the whole “broken internet” thing…

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