Twitter on Thursday announced plans to take a more critical look at its dark side and asked for outside help to develop ways that it can elevate the tone of online conversation.
In a slew of tweets, Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey said the company is starting to look at the problems on its network differently. Rather than simply looking at how it can effectively take down troubling content, he said, the company will also begin looking at how it can encourage and foster better conversation in the first place.
“We’ve focused most of our efforts on removing content against our terms, instead of building a systemic framework to help encourage more healthy debate, conversations and critical thinking,” Dorsey said. “This is the approach we now need.”
Twitter has struggled for years with balancing what some critics say is an idealistic commitment to free expression with the reality that its fast-moving, public network also amplifies hateful, false and sometimes violent ideas. That criticism has only intensified as the network’s influence has grown. Twitter, Google and Facebook were questioned by Congress over the companies’ role in Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election.
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Twitter has announced several policy changes aimed at limiting hate speech on its network — but many have criticized what they see as inconsistent implementation of those policies. For example, the company removed thousands of accounts in February under the suspicion that they were bots or had otherwise violated Twitter’s policies, but political conservatives said they had been unfairly targeted in the purge.
Thursday’s announcement did not specify any changes to Twitter’s policies. It also did not include any new measures that immediately affect users. Instead, it signals that Twitter is willing to take a more critical and realistic look at its long-standing issues.
“We love instant, public, global messaging and conversation,” Dorsey said. “It’s what Twitter is and it’s why we’re here. But we didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences. We acknowledge that now, and are determined to find holistic and fair solutions.”
Before it can improve its “conversational health,” the company is first asking for help getting a diagnosis. Twitter issued an open call for proposals to devise a system through which it can evaluate the conversational health of its network. Dorsey said Twitter would like to create a framework to measure the tone of online conversations, inspired by the work of two groups tied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s media lab — the nonprofit Cortico and an MIT research group called Social Machines that also has ties to Twitter.
Dorsey said Twitter would like to come up with a framework that particularly suits its network. The firm noted in its latest earnings report that roughly 330 million people use its site regularly.
He also acknowledged past missteps by the company in dealing with these issues.
“We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough,” Dorsey said. “While working to fix it, we’ve been accused of apathy, censorship, political bias, and optimizing for our business and share price instead of the concerns of society. This is not who we are, or who we ever want to be.”
Twitter will accept proposals until April 13; it expects to announce the first selected projects in July.