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Commentary: If Twitter doesn't learn basic transparency, then it might well die
Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey interacts with students on Nov. 12 at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. Dorsey hosted a town hall meeting with university students on his visit to the Indian capital New Delhi. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP)

Commentary: If Twitter doesn't learn basic transparency, then it might well die

Contrary to former President Barack Obama, I am of the opinion that the people who own and manage Twitter did "build that," and therefore should more or less be free to do with it as they wish within the bounds of the law.

If Twitter wants to ban people who eat ketchup on hot dogs, who root for the Green Bay Packers, or who don't think that "Die Hard" is a Christmas movie, then the the social media outlet should be legally allowed to do so. If people don't like the decisions Twitter makes, in terms of its banning policy, its decision to allow 280 characters, or whatever, then the proper response should be to leave and/or start their own competing platform.

Here at TheBlaze, we do not run opinion pieces from Linda Sarsour or Josh Marshall or whoever, and would like to continue to have the freedom to refuse to do so; accordingly, Twitter should have the same freedom.

What's most concerning to me about the way Twitter has gone about its business lately is the lack of transparency behind its business. The most recent controversy concerns prominent Texas-based conservative writer and pundit Jesse Kelly.

Kelly, who was a verified user at the time of his banning, had over 70,000 followers. His writings were regularly featured in prominent conservative publications. He was even an occasional guest as a talking head on cable news. Needless to say, Kelly had a large, loyal following on the platform.

Over the weekend, Kelly's followers were treated to a shock: a notification that Kelly's account had been permanently suspended.

Kelly's Twitter persona was intentionally bombastic and often resorted to rhetorical excess in the service of humor. I don't know Kelly well (or at all, personally), but I grant that it's entirely possible that Kelly might have tweeted something that clearly crossed the line of Twitter's terms of service, or that at least might have been easily misconstrued as being much worse than it was, to people who aren't familiar with Kelly's schtick.

The problem, for me, is that it's impossible to know whether to be upset at Twitter or not, because of its complete lack of transparency thus far in this (and other) cases involving prominent conservative voices. Did Kelly go too far? Is Twitter applying a double standard against Kelly versus similar left-wing provocateurs because of his ideological beliefs? It's impossible to tell because, thus far, Twitter has said nothing.

According to Kelly, they haven't told him anything, either. According to numerous friends of Kelly, Kelly told them that he received a peremptory email from Twitter summarily telling him that he was banned for life and that his appeals would not be heard.

Twitter's opaqueness about their decision-making process is even more pervasive than even this incident would indicate. As one of the larger internet publishers, TheBlaze works regularly with other social media companies like Facebook and YouTube. Whenever we have a question about something that is done or an account that has been banned, we have a contact person who will promptly provide us an answer. It isn't always an answer that we agree with, but it's an answer.

With Twitter, on the other hand, we just hit the "contact us" form and send an email into the void like everyone else; in fact, at my direction, our reporter Mike Ciandella did so with respect to this story several hours ago, and asked a series of straightforward questions about why Kelly was suspended, and if there were any specific tweets that resulted in the suspension. He received a summary response: "We don't comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.".

I will state the obvious: In the legal sense, Twitter doesn't owe me or anyone else an explanation any more than they owe Jesse Kelly (or anyone else) the right to continue using the platform they built. But its continued silence does not speak well for the future survival of its business model. By continuing to maintain radio silence in the face of a relatively major campaign designed to get Kelly's account reinstated, Twitter is helping to perpetuate the belief that Kelly was axed quite simply because he was supportive of the Republican Party and unapologetic about that.

By refusing to explain what, specifically, Kelly did that merited being declared persona non grata on its platform, it sends the message that half the country isn't really welcome there unless they are polite and servile. If it keeps reinforcing that message, it risks a mass exodus or the creation of a truly competitive platform — either of which would be fatal to its already tenuous business model.

Nor is that even the worst possible outcome for the social media giant; the president is neither as libertarian nor as absolutist about the free market as I am, and has already signaled his willingness to use the awesome power of governmental regulation and investigation to punish companies like Twitter for its behavior. While I personally think that such governmental meddling would be a bad idea for a whole host of reasons, only a fool would believe that President Trump isn't serious about making the attempt. If he does, the costs of battling an antitrust investigation/prosecution and/or fighting undesirable regulation would cost companies like Twitter millions of dollars in legal fees alone, regardless of the ultimate outcome of such a battle.

I'm not insensitive to the problems that Twitter faces. At the end of the day, what Twitter sells is an experience. The experience of Twitter is definitely diminished by the presence of neo-Nazis and genuinely abusive users of all political stripes. I've been around Twitter long enough to remember when Twitter didn't ban or suspend virtually everyone, and the platform was so overrun with abuse that I used to have to regularly take extended breaks from the platform in order to preserve my sanity. Twitter's efforts to end the scourge of the "alt-right" trolls are necessary for the health of the platform to preserve it as a place where the vast majority of Americans can find an enjoyable experience.

In the course of moderating any such platform, mistakes will inevitably be made. Inevitably, an overzealous moderator will overstep their bounds, and the personal and political biases of the people involved will always come into play no matter how careful the moderators are. Enough high profile incidents have happened recently that roughly half the country is starting to get the idea that it isn't just moderation of offensive content that's occurring, but rather suppression of all people of a given ideological bent.

If that isn't the message Twitter is trying to send, then it should strive for much greater transparency in what its doing in its moderation efforts.

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