Law of Parsimony
1. A principle according to which an explanation of a thing or event is made with the fewest possible assumptions.
Attempting to compose a political thesis in the amount of space it takes to write this entire sentence is a complete and utter waste of time. And yes, that was the exact number of characters you would be allotted to write up your thoughts and feelings if you used Twitter. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by explaining what Twitter is, but I will go into detail about why this company’s USP is a symbol of the destruction of constructive conversation on the internet.
To start, I showcased how short a 140 letter sentence is and by doing so I have also demonstrated how much, or how little, information can be stored in such a situation. It is important to point out that within the sentence I was able to summarise all of my thoughts and opinions, however; what I was not able to do, was go into any detail about why, or how, I came to that conclusion. Even now, 165 words in, we are only scratching the surface of why I think this way.
When discussing this issue, one of the first things that springs to my mind is what a policy such as this does to the way people think and act; what happens when people are so used to having to force their opinions into 140 letters? Put simply, (and you will see the irony of this later), their opinions become 140 characters; their world view becomes so simple and so lacking in nuance that they no longer struggle to achieve this task of intellectual distillation. They haven taken the concept of Occam’s Razor and run with it; if ever a politically motivated hashtag begins to trend, it will soon be filled with hundreds of thousands of, otherwise reasonable, people voicing off opinions that should not possibly be as simple as they have portrayed them to be. Twitter has become the online equivalent of picking up a book, reading its short but interesting blurb, and opening it up to find nothing but a few hundred blank pages; it is a symptom of a society that moves so quickly and has so much going on, that it has developed an attention span so short, it can no longer pay attention to one subject for more than 5 minutes before finding something new to complain about. While I may sound like I am blaming society or Twitter for this, I’m not; it comes as no surprise to me that something like this was going to happen. Considering all the technological and social progress we have made in the past century, is it really all that strange to think that we as a culture have developed such tendencies, and is it really that jolting to think that our media has capitalised on this?
The internet has been a beautiful thing to have access to; the world’s knowledge at the touch of a button is no trivial privilege, however; such a thing comes at a cost; being as connected as we are, we experience and hear of more events currently unfolding than we can possibly comprehend; at one point we either have to acknowledge that we cannot all be an authority on every subject and therefore concede defeat in ignorance, or we can revise the truth to suit our needs and make everyone happy. Us being the agreeable creatures that we are decided to go with the latter and as such, we have been self-censoring the content we see on social media for decades. In a 2012 Pew Research study of 2253 adults, researchers found that 18% of SNS (Social Networking Site) users have actively blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because they had done one of the following things:
“+10% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because that person posted too frequently about political subjects.
+9% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because they posted something about politics or issues that they disagreed with or found offensive.
+8% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because they argued about political issues on the site with the user or someone the user knows.
+5% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because they posted something about politics that the user worried would offend other friends.
+4% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because they disagreed with something the user posted about politics.”
While 18% is not a large number, this is only people who have actively censored their own feed, there are a large number of people who do the same, however; this time they do it passively. In a more recent (May 2016) Pew Research poll, analysts discovered a number of trends regarding how social media users acquire their news.
In this graph, we see a trend towards social media users acquiring their news from one source; by this, we mean a trending topic on sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Reddit (though other social media sites were options on this poll). The most common site for the 64% who only got their news from one site, was Facebook; this site compiles the search and engagement traffic of different subjects and creates a trending topics chart based on this data. While this may sound like a good means of creating a news feed, Facebook filters the raw feed through an advertising algorithm used throughout the site. The result is a page of topics that are centred around the viewer’s interests; if the person in question has a number of automotive-themed pages liked or followed, their news feed is more likely to contain stories relating to the topic of motoring. This feature is useful if you intend to use it in this particular way, however; if one wants to use the news feed for ‘news’, they are unlikely to have a feed built for them that is pluralistic enough in its content to be c0nisidered actual ‘news’. The algorithm picks up on the user’s preference for certain topics and style of journalism, for example; if the user shows an interest in the topic of racial injustice and a preference for tabloid journalism, they are likely to end up with articles from sites such as Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, and Raw Story regarding stories such as Black Lives Matter. In this example, the algorithm will also attempt to diversify the feed by bringing in similar topics (eg, gender injustice or ‘progressive’ politics) as well as relevant articles written in a complimentary but this time broadsheet style. With this in mind, it is important to recognise that the 64% of social media users who only use one source for their daily news are likely getting this information from a source that has intentionally, and probably without the awareness of the user, placed the user in a metaphorical echo chamber.
Further on, in the Pew Research poll, there is data regarding the passive vs active habits of social media users regarding the subject of news intake; 63% of Instagram users who use the internet as their main source of news, come across this news when they are searching for other things online; this is opposed to the 37% of users who only come across this news because they are actively searching for it. More importantly, 62% of Facebook users who use the internet as their main source of news only happen across this news because it has appeared on the website, while only 38% come across this news because they wanted to; while these demographics are slightly more in favour of active participation, they still paint a picture of a majority of people (at least those living in the United States) who only come across news because Facebook has given it to them. Considering previous statements regarding Facebook’s advertising system, it is likely that these users are being given a warped or biased perspective of current affairs and popular news topics. To put this in perspective, there are currently 229 million Facebook users in North America (including Canada) and, assuming these Pew Research statistics are also representative of those living in the aforementioned country, there are possibly over 146 million North American Facebook users who use Facebook as their only source of news; 62% of which (90 million or 90,867,200) only come across this news because it was given to them by a system that purposefully censors certain views and stories for ad revenue.
But this is Facebook, not Twitter. So why then have I brought up Facebook? Because Facebook is the most popular social media site with an estimated 1,100,000,000 unique monthly viewers. Twitter is the third most popular social media site, however; their viewing figures average around 310,000,000 unique monthly viewers; less than half of that of Facebook. This is not to say that Twitter’s monthly viewing statistics are small; 310 million is more than the population of the United States (307 million) , and so their influence on the public cannot be underestimated. While the graph above suggests that Twitter users who adopt the internet as their main source of news are more likely to actively search for news as opposed to passively acquire it, it is still likely that a good proportion of these users only use one site as their main source of news, and that this is quite likely to be Twitter itself. While this conclusion takes a leap, it is not an unreasonable one. In fact, let us not present this as a fact, let’s approach this a thought experiment. Let’s assume that my previous statement is true; that a large minority proportion (moderately less than 50%) of Twitter users, acquire their news from just this one site. Theoretically, anyone can use Twitter as long as they remain within the company’s terms of service, however; there are been dozens of instances in which Twitter has been accused of censoring certain political viewpoints while leaving others intact, allegations that make this thought experiment all the more concerning. Around November, 16th, 2016, Twitter banned a number of leading ‘Alt-Right’ Twitter accounts including the verified account of Richard B Spencer, as well as Paul Town, Pax Dickinson, Ricky Vaughn, and John Rivers. Alongside these individuals, Twitter also banned the ‘Alt-Right’ think tank, Spencer’s, and the group’s magazine. In many cases, Twitter, as a private company, had grounds to ban these accounts due to them having arguably broken a number of the rules within the terms and conditions, however; the criticism levied at Twitter is more specific than that; commentators argue that the banning of these accounts is just another example of them, Twitter, not being consistent when it comes to applying these terms and conditions regularly. Many will cite the existence of ISIS-affiliated accounts still being active, as well as those from the Uhuru Movement; a radical socialist group centred around Black Nationalism. A popular member of the movement, Gazi Kodzo, runs a moderately sized youtube channel and is one of the most famous figures to come out of the movement and achieve some mainstream recognition; Mr Kodzo famously calls those of a European or Caucasian background, “Toilet seat complexion individuals“, and “Neanderthal cave beast sociopathic parasites”. The hashtag, نطالب_بقتل_الملحدين, which translates as ‘We demand the killing of Atheists’, was a trending topic on Saudi Twitter before attention was drawn to it on Western Twitter; while the hashtag is now nothing more than parody and ironic messages and images, there was a time when the contents of this tag were completely serious. As of writing this article, there is nothing to suggest Twitter has made any attempts at dealing with these groups besides 125,000 burner accounts run by ISIS affiliates being shut down last year.
Another practice Twitter has been accused of partaking in is the act of ‘Shadowbanning’ accounts; ‘Dilbert’ creator, Scott Adams has claimed Twitter has been blocking his followers from seeing his tweets after he posted videos of Hillary Clinton supporters attacking Donald Trump advocates.
“Why did I get shadowbanned? Beats me. But it was probably because I asked people to tweet me examples of Clinton supporters being violent against peaceful Trump supporters in public. I got a lot of them. It was chilling.”
While this issue may have been caused by a glitch, other Twitter users who are often placed into the same groups as Scott Adams, people such as geek culture blogger Daddy Warpig, adult actress and outspoken censorship critic Mercedes Carrera, popular Youtuber Sargon of Akkad, and World of Warcraft team lead Mark Kern have all claimed to be shadowbanned. While this may seem to be a series of unrelated events, a quick glance over any of their accounts will establish that these individuals all hold some similar and beliefs and opinions. From my own personal experience, I have often found that I am unable to view Sargon of Akkad’s tweets when viewing them as part of a comment thread while I am able to view everyone else’s tweets, including those in the same comment threads. A common theory to why these individuals, in particular, appear to have been affected by such measures, is Twitter’s ‘Trust and Safety Council’. The council was announced earlier this year and was met with significant backlash from users and journalists alike, however; in a piece for the Guardian, Twitter’s head of policy, Nick Pickles, attempted to dispell some of the criticisms that had been levied against Twitter; Mr Pickles said;
“If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the internet’s growth has brought into the open some challenging, even upsetting, viewpoints. These viewpoints, which existed long before the iPhone, have become more visible because of the power of the technology we have at our fingertips. The internet has become a real-time global mirror, reflecting society in a way that is not always comfortable to look at.”
“Yet there are far more people who want to see a positive reflection than a negative one. The tolerant outnumber the intolerant, the peaceful outnumber the abusive. The challenge is ensuring that the noise generated by those who seek to create division is drowned out by voices of hope and respect.”
While Twitter may claim to make sure the platform is somewhere “where the expression of diverse viewpoints is encouraged and defended”, Mr Pickles’ earlier statements regarding “drowning out” the voices of “those who seek to create division” seems to somewhat go against that. In the case of the supposed shadowbanning of Sargon of Akkad et al, a clue to why they appear to be singled out can be found in the list of those involved within the Trust and Safety Council; The Internet Watch Foundation, Dangerous Speech Project, Safer Internet Centre, and Feminist Frequency are all members of the initiative, and all have similar ideological opinions and goals, goals that people such as Sargon of Akkad have been very critical of.
The mutual alignment of the political leanings within the Trust and Safety Council, as well as the outspoken views of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and the accusations of banning and shadowbanning individuals due to their political leanings, all create a rather unpleasant atmosphere that doesn’t appear to dissipate under the discovery of new evidence. To go back to the thought experiment for a minute, it is now worth mentioning that it is beyond likely, considering the situation, that at least some tampering of people’s feeds has taken place, and that the nature of this tampering was most likely politically motivated. With this in mind, it is probably worth being concerned over the factual validity or impartiality of the news feed we have been given by Twitter and whether or not this theoretical large minority of Twitter users, who use the site as their only source of news, are actually being misled by Dorsey and his team.
The question is why is this happening? Is it because they want the experience to be more comfortable and engaging for the user, as it appears to be in the case of Facebook, or is it because they have an agenda to push, as it appears to be in the case of Twitter. Like I mentioned at the beginning of the article, we as a society like to simplify things to make it easier to understand; we do this because we simply don’t have enough time in the world to even attempt to become legitimately knowledgeable about every subject, however; some force this choice to be ignorant upon others; both Facebook and Twitter appear to be compelling users to be part an unspoken, generally unwritten system within the platforms themselves; an obligatory echo chamber experience. Ultimately, Twitter’s choice to have users force their opinions into 140 characters or less is simply a unique selling point of the platform, however; there is a distinct irony to such a measure being even necessary at this point; with both companies being so aware of their outreach to such a large proportion of the human population, and how people use their platforms as news sources (often their only news sources), and how they (the companies) appear to actively censor people’s timelines and news feeds so they only get certain opinions, it is surprising that 140 characters are even necessary at this point; one would have thought that companies such as Twitter could probably get us to compose our opinions in even fewer letters and numbers. At this point, the main thing stopping this culture of misinformation and deception from becoming more widespread is the language itself; English is so full of subtleties, synonyms, antonyms, and crossovers with other, foreign, languages that it is almost impossible to really control it. The only way this type of behaviour could grow and become more powerful is if the state steps in, perhaps instead of telling us what we must not say, maybe this time, they will tell us what we have to say, however; I feel that this may be a topic for another day.