Colin Crowell, the vice president of global public policy and corporate philanthropy at Twitter, spoke about how Twitter has changed civic discourse in recent years at a talk entitled “Twitter Diplomacy” yesterday afternoon in the ASEAN Auditorium.
The event was sponsored by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, the Edward R. Murrow Center for a Digital World, the Hitachi Center for Technology and International Affairs, Tech@Fletcher and the Office of the Senior Associate Dean at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
In his opening remarks, Crowell explained that Twitter offers a platform so that world leaders can communicate with the general public in real time.
“You’re able to see how world leaders feel, and at times quite viscerally, about these issues as they play out,” he said.
In particular, Crowell mentioned the negotiations between former President Barack Obama and officials from Cuba, during which Cuban leaders used Twitter to connect with people around the world.
“This is a way that a historically closed society was opening up and creating an aperture for people to see what they were thinking and what their perspectives were on [the new relationship] between the [United States] and Cuba,” he said.
Crowell also discussed how Twitter can shape public opinion, noting in particular Michelle Obama’s advocacy for the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, which brought attention to the abduction of hundreds of Nigerian girls from a school in 2014.
“It’s not always about going back and forth with world leaders. It’s also an opportunity for leaders to use these new tools to create awareness, to provoke empathy, to manage a crisis response and to manage some of the informational issues around that,” he said.
After his opening speech, Crowell sat down for a discussion facilitated by Tisch College Dean Alan Solomont.
Crowell explained that the internet has limited governments’ abilities to control the flow of information.
“Historically, controlling authorities would use broadcast media to send their messages to the masses, so the controlling authority would go down the vertical [axis],” he said. “But with the rise of the internet, it meant that people could send messages along that vertical back to authorities.”
Social media, Crowell argued, creates an entirely different way for information to flow through society, allowing people who share viewpoints on civic issues to connect with each other.
When Solomont asked whether Twitter replaces forms of traditional media, Crowell claimed that Twitter adds to, rather than replaces, traditional media.
“The reality is that Twitter in many respects is a pointing device,” he said. “Individual tweets will point back to the Washington Post or The New York Times … so it doesn’t supplant that which exists but supplements it.”
He explained that, in addition to forms of traditional media adapting to changing technology, social media allows other voices to be expressed. These other voices allow for different viewpoints as well as new information from citizens about breaking news stories.
“A lot of times, what’s happening in different parts of the world are brought to us by people who are not journalists,” he said. “The initial breaking news comes from people on the scene.”
He noted that journalists themselves often use Twitter to find out about breaking news.
Additionally, Crowell said that Twitter works extensively with journalists to make sure that they can effectively use Twitter to communicate new stories.
“We do a lot of work training journalists on Twitter. We go to newsrooms to do these trainings. We also work hard to verify the accounts of journalists,” he said.
Crowell acknowledged that, while individuals’ Twitter experiences are largely defined by their choices of whom to follow and what to discover, Twitter can also be used to spread false information.
“There are certainly vectors for information that’s false to come into … your Twitter experience, and we have often seen practitioners of different strategies trying to game … platforms [like the] trending topics list, for example,” he said.
He mentioned that when people misuse the system with automated accounts, there are structures in place to keep them from overrunning the platform.
“We work with our engineering team around those networks of manipulation — some may call them automated accounts,” he said. “We use proprietary anti-spam techniques to look for signals [and to] remove those accounts.”
Ultimately, Crowell argued that although free speech on social media allows false information to spread, Twitter’s popularity with journalists allows the spread of truth as a corrective measure.
“One of the things that … is certainly true about Twitter is that rumors, innuendo and false information can spread very fast,” he said. “On the other hand … the truth can be spread fast as well.”