When Twitter slapped a fact-check on one of President Trump’s tweets for the first time this week, the president responded predictably — by trying to exact revenge on the platform. But the executive order he issued on Thursday was largely seen as toothless. On the latest Pivot podcast, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway discuss Swisher’s role in bringing about this news cycle, why Twitter should delete Trump’s account altogether, and what better social-media regulation might look like.
Scott Galloway: Kara, you were the spark in a firestorm. Give us a rundown of what happened here.
Kara Swisher: I wrote a column in the New York Times about how President Trump is pushing a debunked lie about a deceased woman. She died of a heart condition — fell and hit her head — but he’s pushing the lie that she was killed by MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. I didn’t focus on Scarborough in this case, because it’s not the point. This is a conspiracy theory that has been going around the internet. I focused on the widower of this woman, who’s being impugned by President Trump, because Trump didn’t just recycle the conspiracy theory — he made all kinds of weird allegations and, in the process, dragged a dead woman across the national stage for his own political gain. What’s interesting about this is that it then led Twitter to take action somewhere else: around mail-in balloting. They didn’t think they had him on this one, I guess.
They took a baby step by saying, “Learn more about mail-in ballots.” But they did link to stories that debunked what Trump was writing. They also labeled it potentially misleading. They couldn’t even just say “misleading” — it said “potentially misleading.” Then Trump, of course, freaked out because he’s never been punished on this platform. The whole thing is just a mess. And then he put out this executive order that’s trying to get rid of Section 230 — Senator Josh Hawley and others are trying to make legislation around this. They’re doing sort of the dumb version of tech legislation. I’ve talked to so many people — this is going to ensure that the allies of really good tech legislation are not going to join with them.
Galloway: What are they proposing now? I know it’s sort of bifurcated into good legislation–bad legislation.
Swisher: Essentially the order says if you’re an editorial publisher, you don’t get the protections of 230. But it’s so confusing. I was talking to lawyers — you can’t overturn a statute. You’ve got to do it through legislation. My whole point is that 230 needs to be looked at again, but doing it in this way means that it will have court challenges and that good legislation around what should be done about tech liability will not be explored. It’s done out of pique — he has to be able to drag a dead woman around the streets and abuse her memory. I can’t even begin to see how the Republicans will get allies with the Democrats who are their natural allies.
Galloway: They both hate social media, but for different reasons, Democrats and progressives think social media has absolutely no standards around committing libel or slander that impacts people’s lives unnecessarily. Whereas Republicans believe that the social-media platforms are demonstrating bias against conservative values, right?
Swisher: I think they’re the most cynical people on earth, all of them. First of all, they don’t want to focus on data regulation. They don’t want to focus on privacy. Instead, they’d rather have this ridiculous cultural debate, which is an important debate, but the Constitution doesn’t guarantee free speech — which Trump put in all caps — if it’s on Twitter. It just doesn’t.
He’s conflating all these different, very important things because he’s having a giant baby tantrum. I believe in sensible regulation of tech companies done in a way where it will stick, not this bullshit — that’s really what it is. I mean, the people like Senator Josh Hawley, who is not unintelligent, although he’s a little too far down the conservative bias line for my taste,
Galloway: He strikes me as someone who’s at least thoughtful and trying to figure this shit out.
Swisher: He is, but now he’s on the Trump bandwagon. He looks like a toady.
Galloway: Isn’t he one of the younger Republicans? Isn’t he like 93?
Swisher: Yeah. He’s young. Then he attaches Matt Gaetz to this bill, literally the biggest chucklehead of a congressman, who doesn’t know a thing.
Galloway: The guy with the gas mask?
Swisher: Yes. Let me tell you something about tech. If you’re going to shoot at tech, you better not miss, because these people are going to come at you with lobbyists.
Galloway: Thousands of lawyers.
Swisher: What’s really interesting is there’s obviously something here to take advantage of. Mark Zuckerberg went on Fox News to sort of insult Jack Dorsey, saying he doesn’t want to be an arbiter of truth, which is not what Jack Dorsey is trying to do. Facebook thinks just by having Joel Kaplan swan around with the Trump administration, they’re going to get out of this? They’re not.
Galloway: I want to propose something. To me, you go to the root cause. I mean, these are symptoms, and we’re trying to figure out a way to treat the symptoms. At the end of the day, isn’t the thing causing this problem the business model? That it’s based on advertising, which is based on engagement? These algorithms have figured out the greatest way to get engagement is rage, even if it’s from falsehood. It’s not a First Amendment issue. The issue here is that crazy, oftentimes damaging messaging and narrative get more oxygen than they would get organically, because the algorithm has been trained to give oxygen to anti-vaxxers and white supremacists. Wouldn’t the most effective legislation be to figure out a small way to tax every message a penny and force these guys to move to a subscription model, which would probably result in shareholder value and turn off the rage machine?
Swisher: There was a great Wall Street Journal article about this, which Facebook, of course, tried to shy away from. They had all these studies showing this is exactly what the business does. There are some people within the company, whom Facebook is calling disgruntled, who didn’t like that Mark didn’t want to take action on it. It’s a pretty damning piece. I hate to use the word quisling, but they’re quislings in this, and they’re trying to strike a deal with Trump.
Galloway: They’re co-conspirators; they’re corrupt. They’re saying, “Let’s circumvent laws, let’s circumvent decency, and let’s cut a deal with the orange man and keep on printing money.” I’ll go back to my proposal. I think the most elegant legislation addresses the externality but also ideally unlocks shareholder value. We live in a capitalist society, and money is a great thing.
When we broke up AT&T, it unlocked tremendous shareholder value and it did away with a monopoly that had negative externalities. My question is, just as a consumer — I think you and I would pay a decent amount of money every month for Twitter. I think a lot of people would pay for Instagram, and it might not have the global reach, but it would have recurring revenue, which gets valued at a higher multiple. If they held onto 20 percent of their user base and had 700 million instead of 3 and a half billion, but they were each paying one, three, five, ten bucks a month based on the service thing, I think you’d end up with a company that didn’t have the rage machine trying to pit us against each other. Netflix doesn’t get weaponized. Netflix doesn’t make us hate each other. Twitter makes us hate each other. I don’t see any more elegant solution than figuring out a way to encourage them to change their business model. As soon as it goes from advertising to subscription, the world becomes a better place. And I think they’re worth more.
Swisher: Yeah, absolutely. We’ll see what happens. I think it’ll not survive a court challenge, from what everybody tells me, and like most of his things, it’ll go by the wayside. This is first off a political game, which is to get his base riled up claiming he can’t say what he wants. And secondly, we’re at 100,000 deaths from COVID, and that’s what this is really about, isn’t it? It’s — let’s distract from the real point, which is this incredible, horrible landmark for the United States being No. 1 in coronavirus deaths.
Galloway: So just as a journalist, I’m just sort of curious. What happens when you publish that article? It’s created a decent amount of controversy. I know senators have reached out to you. What happens to your in-box? Do you feel pressured? Do you feel anxiety?
Galloway: Do people get angry at you? Do people support you? What’s happening? What’s going on with Kara?
Swisher: Gosh. Chuck Todd calls me a lot, but —
Galloway: “Chuck Todd calls me a lot” … That’s the weakest flex in the world. Well, good for you. Howie Mandel wants to have drinks with me. Top that.
Swisher: Don’t even start.
Galloway: Chuck Todd called me. Chuck Todd called me.
Swisher: You have Anderson Cooper, so you win. Not all of us can be Anderson Cooper’s favorite professor.
Galloway: Why does that make me happy?
Swisher: It really does.
Galloway: Chuck Todd calls you.
Swisher: Listen to me, it was a joke.
Galloway: You hit the big time.
Swisher: I don’t feel pressure. What happens is that you unleash unintended consequences, I guess. And Trump may in fact have been doing all this so that he could pick a fight with these people. But you don’t do legislation as punishment. You just don’t, even though it feels like you should. You do it thoughtfully. By the way, you need to do it for the good of tech, too. We don’t want this industry to be hobbled. You want to work with everybody in a way that everybody’s interests are best served, especially consumers.
Galloway: I agree legislation is warranted across the whole industry and we need to update this 23-year-old legislation. There’s no doubt about that. But even before then, there’s a layer of governance called the board of directors at Twitter. And what I don’t get is — their standards have basically become a flaccid piece of paper to occasionally try and defend themselves. They don’t apply it uniformly. There’s no consistency. They’re not standards.
Swisher: I don’t think you can.
Galloway: What I don’t understand is why don’t they come out with some basics and then announce in two weeks or whatever, “These are the general standards we’re trying to uphold.” And they list 11,000 accounts, and one of them is the Real Donald Trump, and they kick him off.
The people who follow him — I don’t think they’re worth a lot to advertisers. And what I don’t understand is, just from a business standpoint, why don’t they starch their hat white? I won’t even say starching it white, but taking it from black to light black. I think they would get a lot of kudos, and I don’t think they’d lose that much. I think a lot of people would rally to their support. It would create some consistency between this whole namaste bullshit perception that Jack Dorsey puts out there that is totally hypocritical. And at the same time, the 80 million people that are following Donald Trump, quite frankly, are not who advertisers want to reach. I don’t think it would hurt Twitter’s image.
Swisher: It would be really nice if Josh Hawley and Elizabeth Warren could get along here. But she’s going to wait, going to bide her time, and she’s going to be the one that does thoughtful legislation, which is going to hurt tech.
Galloway: And that will go nowhere as long as Republicans control the Senate.
Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes. Erica Anderson is the executive producer.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.