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Does Twitter need to become a public utility?

If Twitter really wants to be a neutral space for debate, it can't choose between Silicon Valley's progressive ideology and the religious commitments of Pope Francis.

Does Twitter need to become a public utility? RNS Illustration by KC McGinnis

(RNS) — Twitter has dramatically and uniquely shaped the U.S. political ecosystem.

It is inconceivable that Donald Trump could have become president and now control the news cycle without the social media platform. Journalists have an obsession with it, and opinion writers push out their opinions via Twitter if they want their pieces read by political influencers. No serious candidate for major political office would run without first establishing a significant Twitter presence.

If this makes you wonder whether Twitter should be regulated like a public utility rather than a private company, you’re not alone.

To see why this may be necessary, consider that as a private company Twitter has two concerns: (1) making money and (2) reflecting the values of the people who run it.

More on (1) in a moment. The problem with (2) is that the values of the people who run Twitter — like all people — are far from neutral. Tech companies in Northern California, unsurprisingly, have a strongly progressive culture. This had led many Twitter users, especially in the last couple years, to highlight what they believe are signs of significant bias against more conservative viewpoints.

Jack Dorsey, a co-founder and now CEO of Twitter, is a native Midwesterner and understands the moral diversity of the United States better than most in Silicon Valley. I believe he genuinely wants to make Twitter a platform that doesn’t rule, as he has said, “according to political ideology or viewpoints.” But in order to reach his goal of having the largest number of people participate, Dorsey has had to create limits, prohibiting targeted harassment, hateful conduct and promotion of violence.

Policing all this is a near impossible job, in part because of the sheer number of tweets. In a recent interview with popular podcaster Joe Rogan, Dorsey and Twitter’s legal expert were pushed to wrestle with a pluralistic culture in which millions and millions of people have different views.

But prohibiting hateful speech online is also difficult because of the nature of morality itself.  

The problem — as philosophers and theologians have been arguing for many decades now — is that there is simply no way Dorsey, or any of us, can take a neutral ideological stand on what terms like harassment, hate and violence mean. One needs to employ a “thick” or specified understanding of “the good” — something at least akin to belief in a religious tradition — for these terms to have content.

Take the example of Twitter’s policy of prohibiting purposeful “misgendering” — referring to a transgender person by a name or pronouns by their birth gender, or any other than the one with which they now identify, despite how they refer to themselves.

For people with a certain kind of traditional ideology, however, “misgendering” means the opposite of what Twitter says it means. From the perspective of Silicon Valley’s dominant ideology, the views of this more traditional thinker would rightly be labeled hateful and their public expression on Twitter as harassment or even a kind of violence.

Pope Francis, for instance, has regularly and forcefully criticized the kinds of views pushed by Silicon Valley as a kind of “ideological colonization”: “And one of these — I will call it clearly by its name — is (the ideology of) ‘gender.’ Today, children — children! — are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex. … These forms of ideological colonization are also supported by influential countries. And this terrible!”

If the pope said this on Twitter, would he be at risk for having the tweet deleted? If he continued to post such tweets would he face suspension? And if someone like Pope Francis could be excluded by Twitter’s policies, what does that say for the inclusion of others in the United States’ morally diverse and pluralistic political culture?

If Twitter is to be an ideologically neutral space for debate and exchange about live issues in contemporary culture, it cannot choose between the progressive ideology of Silicon Valley and the religious commitments of Pope Francis.

Understandably, those in Silicon Valley don’t want to make space for what they understand to be hate, harassment and even violence. Equally understandably, someone with Pope Francis’ ideology wants to express their views about what they think is true about sex and gender in the midst of public debate about these matters.

There are plenty of other issues debated on Twitter where similar conflicts come into view. Are the recent claims of Rep. Ilhan Omar anti-Semitic or just anti-Israel? Is abortion an act of reproductive choice or violence against a vulnerable population? Is forcing a Muslim school to teach an LGBT curriculum an example of justice for vulnerable sexual minorities or injustice for a vulnerable religious minority?

Answers to these questions rely on a particular understanding of the good — one with regard to which Twitter is not neutral.

And this takes us back to (1): Dorsey’s desire to expand Twitter’s audience and his responsibility to his shareholders to make money. Tim Pool, a journalist who was pushing against Dorsey on the Rogan podcast,  appeared on The Rubin Report shortly afterward and said, interestingly, that the main disagreement was philosophical. Dorsey wants to make space for as many people as possible on the platform (a utilitarian value) while Pool wants to respect the right to free expression (a deontological value).

Dorsey may have selfless reasons for wanting as many as possible on the platform, but he also has a different kind of reason: More people on the platform means more revenue. Twitter, despite its power, has struggled to be profitable and the company has recently gone through massive restructuring and cutbacks to finally make money. Twitter requires that it limit free expression in order to be profitable and fulfill its duty to its shareholders.

Given Twitter’s uniqueness as a medium, and its uniquely powerful role in shaping the U.S. political ecosystem, it cannot be fundamentally shaped and policed by private entities with very particular ideologies and fundamental concerns about profitability.

If the U.S. government regulated Twitter as a public utility, it could foster a genuinely open exchange of ideas about the issues of the day, protected by the First Amendment. Most of us would more regularly encounter speech we believe to be hateful and bigoted, but this may be the price we pay for having a genuinely pluralistic community that welcomes multiple, contradictory understandings of the good.

(Charles C. Camosy is on the board of Democrats for Life and is the author of “Beyond the Abortion Wars” and the forthcoming “Resisting Throwaway Culture.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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