Twitter is the perfect libel platform, a truth ever more visible this week in the smearfest over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s entitled badboy past and the lawsuits just filed against Tesla’s Elon Musk. We’re not sure how Jack Dorsey sleeps at night but we have a pretty good idea what will soon be keeping him awake. Governments are already threatening to rein in technology that fuels hate mongering, spreads lies, and endangers democracy. As they say, what goes around, comes around. We predict technology will soon turn its exponential powers against the Dark Side of Twitter. It’s only a matter of time before lawyers tap into automation to put Dorsey and the haters in their place.
The Kavanaugh catastrophe is Exhibit A. After Christine Blasey Ford first emerged last week to accuse the judge of sexual assault, white nationalist conservatives tore into the college prof with lies and abuse. Then one of them doxed her, publishing her home address on Twitter, and she started getting death threats and had to move. Another Christine Ford was dragged into the muck when right-wing extremist media published her teacher ratings, publicly shaming her. Then the coup de grace, a close Kavanaugh friend, associate and strident defender named Ed Whelan stepped into the fray. The president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, Whelan spun a “Hardy Boys-like” counter theory, an elaborate series of tweets including diagrams, floor plans, a side-by-side comparison of Kavanaugh’s and a classmate’s yearbook photos. It was all a case of mistaken identity, wrote Whelan, this other guy assaulted Ford.
Twitter did nothing to stop the pile-up or correct the record for the worst of reasons: they make millions on these public melées. Normally responsible journalists (namely, Jake Tapper of CNN and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times) and an ecstatic Fox rushed to republish the libelous tweets. The body was moving without the brain. Finally, a fire hose of tweets was fired back at Whelan as rubberneckers belatedly recognized that he’d irreparably tarred and harmed a total innocent.
Reddit Rights Wrongs, While Twitter Cashes In
Whelan parachuted out of his nosediving plane to save his ass. He frantically deleted his tweets, pointedly never apologized to Christine Blasey Ford, the biggest victim of his nasty scheme, while begging forgiveness from the falsely maligned classmate for his “mistake of judgment.” We call it wickedness. And libel. The trouble is, Whelan and the hack conservative PR firm that helped to pump up the lies, not to mention the foolish journalists who retweeted the falsehoods are all potentially liable. The legal bar for libeling a private citizen is far lower than for a public figure and it was clearly crossed.
And it’s hard to ignore Twitter’s direct role. Despite a prominent new policy section detailing their “range of enforcement options” – tweet-level, direct-message-level, and account-level actions they may take against offending users, Jack Dorsey twiddled his thumbs, while the attacks raged. Where’s the errata correction, the suspension of Whelan’s account? Doesn’t Dorsey get that Twitter is chipping away at democracy one tweet at a time?
In contrast, Reddit has taken bold steps to quickly remove foul content and ban users who violate their community standards. Last year’s deadly, troll-fueled Charlottesville rally resulted in sweeping new policy restrictions by the platform (a subsidiary of Condé Nast) to ban or quarantine content deemed to incite harm or violence against an individual or group, as well as anything that harassed, bullied, or harmed an individual or group. Not so with Twitter, which is increasingly becoming a cyber cesspool of hate.
While researching this story and looking up #ChristineBlaseyFord, we too wish we could file a grievance against Whelan, the trolls he incited, and Twitter itself. We encountered countless disturbing tweets and images, ripples that live on well past Whelan’s deletions. A naked woman passed out on a picnic table surrounded by beer bottles, with a caption implying it might be Christine Blasey Ford. A woman whose face had been brutally beaten with a similar caption. We can’t unsee the images of dead people we found on the thread. This abundant abuse is the pumping lifeblood of the Twitter platform, the core hate-filled function that delivers profit for Dorsey and Twitter. Garbage begets garbage. Many of the photos featured the white nationalist icon Pepe the Frog, either photoshopped into images next to Ms Ford or chosen as avatars representing the users posting this filth.
This is life in the Twittersphere, a hellish realm where we had to resolutely avoid stepping into another rabbit hole of foul libel under the accompanying hashtags (#QAnon, #MAGA, #PatriotsUnite). Can anyone say, regulation is coming?
Yes, finally, legal consequences appear to be on their way for the bad actors, starting with Elon Musk. Earlier this summer, the self-destructing Tesla chief chose Twitter as his weapon to viciously attack one of the Thai cave divers, spreading vile, libelous lies we won’t repeat. The diver’s error? He’d rebuffed Musk’s self-aggrandizing attempt to join the rescue effort. Musk belatedly deleted his foul tweets, then soon relapsed, taunting the diver again to his millions of Twitter followers: “Don’t you think it’s strange he hasn’t sued me?” Twitter did nothing, but just last week the diver filed a libel and slander suit against Musk in California, with a similar suit soon to be filed in the English High Court.
Tech Fights Back
Entrepreneurial lawyers in Europe – where data privacy is regulated by strict GDPR standards and “right to be forgotten” rules – have been much more successful at holding big platforms responsible for privacy violations. We see startup potential. Here’s to tech fighting back. Creating software and AI algorithms to allow litigants to quickly and efficiently file notices against offenders – not just Whelan, but Fox, Jake Tapper, white nationalists, and anyone creating or sharing libelous information. Why not introduce immediate suspensions and financial costs for miscreants? Companies issue tickets all the time for illegal parking. How about automatically citing Twitter offenders for rule violations, with bigger penalties for Whelan-like whoppers?
Twitter can and must act right now. For instance, step up as a publisher (because let’s face it, despite claims to the contrary, Twitter is a media company at its core) and implement a correction section for the especially offensive tweets, a hall of shame for the libelers. Twitter could also be proactive, using AI to detect malicious images or root out the vicious practice of “doxing.” Under no circumstance should users be allowed to share someone’s address or phone number without their consent.
The truth is, Twitter needs a conscience and a heart. Jack Dorsey doesn’t appear to have either. But maybe as lawyers get technical, as the number of litigants multiply exponentially, we can fight falsehoods with libel cases, and begin to return to a time when the mob didn’t rule.