Former Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo has articulated some of the acute challenges facing social media platforms in an era of state-sponsored election meddling after admitting that the industry was blindsided by the role played by Russia in the 2016 US presidential election.
Addressing a panel session during the WebSummit conference in Lisbon Costolo remarked: “I was CEO of Twitter as recently as 2015, we were dealing with spam and abuse, phishing and people stealing people’s credentials to hack into other people’s platforms. The election meddling kind of hit us all in real-time”.
That affair led to a ban on ads for Russia Today and Sputnik but Costolo’s own tenure was dominated by the more prosaic quandaries of adjudicating over ‘edge cases’ of questionable content and how these should be treated across a complex web of national jurisdictions and laws.
He added: “But every day, I can just tell you from experience within these companies, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of edge cases of what’s the right thing to do here? This has never happened before. And there were cases when we would remove content from Twitter, because we thought it was, you know, in a violation of our terms of service, and then, a photo, for example, of some terrorist activity, and then you would turn around, see that photo was published on the front page of a major global newspaper, and, you know, our users would say why did you take that down?”
Despite the challenges Costolo is clear that the onus of responsibility rests on social media platforms themselves to police their services, conceding that owners bear ‘enormous responsibility and accountability’ to their audiences.
Twitter has itself been accused of deleting tweets deemed to be important by investigators seeking to determine the full extent of Russian election meddling.