Open letter to Jack Dorsey

08.09.2021

Dear Mr. Dorsey,

To me, there is nothing more valuable than freedom. And I am free. And it is not without pride that I say these words, nor is it without concern. When I look around and see our society-who we were and who we have become-I am urged to cry aloud together with Cicero: O tempora! O mores! [1] May this letter be an opportunity for you-and I-to reflect on the current situation regarding social media and the role of technology in the individual freedom of the user and the cultural stands of society.

On November 7, 2017, you and your team decided to change the format of the tweet by doubling the character limit from 140 to 280 characters. Apparently, you were trying to make tweeting more accessible, as if it were a gift to the users, while at the same time you argued that Twitter's essence of brevity would not be lost. This was a business decision with a clear economic interest behind it: you want more users, more clients. This transition, however, did not even have an actual perceptible impact on the length of the tweets. As an article in The Verge explains, "people are tweeting more, but not longer." Twitter's strategy turned out to be beneficial for your company, for the activity and the "engagement" in your social media increased, but what about the users? Is tweeting something desirable? Is brevity beneficial for society?

Social media, Mr. Dorsey, causes political polarization and a problematic pensée unique over a world of brief and instantaneous communication, where fallacious statements and poor critical thinking are fostered. It is in this way that social media constitutes both the cause of prejudices and instrument for discrimination. It limits the freedom of the individual and it endangers the course of democracy in society. Although you increased the character limit, your platform still fosters a problematic brevity-a dangerous communication.

To the extent that it relates to human communication, social media is intimately connected with the acquisition of knowledge, which in turn, is also linked to the freedom of the individual. Ignorance, therefore, is the greatest constrain to freedom, and critical thinking is its door to the truth. The free will is informed by the intellect, and thus poor knowledge is translated into limited decisions. Uniform and partial knowledge condemns the person to a narrow range of choices. With this reasoning in mind and from an anthropological perspective, some may argue-perhaps you are among them-that social media empowers freedom of thought to the extent that it connects the individual with a broader spectrum of opinions, ideas and environments. The more plural information would allow for a better contrast and, in the end, a better knowledge. This has been investigated by several experts on education, such as Cristina Redondo from the University of Malaga, who affirms that "social networks allow for joint activities and sharing ideas, and offer also an approach to the world of information." This broader world of knowledge would then empower freedom by enabling the person to choose between more opinions-of thought and action.

All this sounds reasonable and logical, and in theory it seems to work, but I am afraid it is nothing more than an illusion, a mere dream. If you were to hold that opinion ten years ago, I would not be worried, for what did we know back then about the development of social media? But now, not only does it seem illegitimate but almost playful, and treacherous if you will. Social media blinds us and filters reality through the lens of our preferences. That supposed 'diversity of opinions' is corrupted by a selective algorithm-almost artificial intelligence-that feeds our home page with carefully chosen updates and contacts. As an article in The Economist regarding the impact of social media in political issues explains, these algorithms "ensure users are more likely to see information that they are liable to interact with." It is not a free, random selection of opinions, but a directed manipulation of the user through determinism of thought. Moreover, the author states that this feeding "tends to lead them into clusters of like-minded people sharing like-minded things, and can turn moderate views into more extreme ones." How can these clusters empower freedom?

Furthermore, your beloved brevity of social media, Mr. Dorsey, does not allow for argumentation. The frenzied thirst for easy, brief and fast entertainment prevents logical reasoning and inhibits evidence. Easy communication evolves into poor communication: the tyranny of affirmation over critical thinking. Social media, therefore, does not empower freedom through broader knowledge, because this knowledge is fallacious and constitutes partial truths-the weapon of populism and the fetters of citizenship. Biased knowledge is not freedom-not to mention fake news, which would be just a mere subtitle in this dystopian story. We live in an era of uncertainty, and fear and freedom are incompatible.

From a political point of view, some may also argue that social media is an egalitarian instrument in which anyone can be heard, which would supposedly favor a better contrast of opinions. This augmented communication, therefore, would provide to the standard citizen an active participation in the social reality of the moment. Ideally it should empower the freedom of expression of the individual by allowing his or her voice to be heard. And it is the greater freedom of expression that empowers freedom as a whole. This is argued by several sociologists, like Rocio Ortiz, who affirms in the Telos magazine of 2017 that "the social cyber-movements promote processes of active participation of direct and deliberative democracy open to all the citizens." Again, you would agree with me, Mr. Dorsey, that the argument is completely logical and convincing, albeit untrue. In practice, evidence clearly shows the opposite: social media is a threat to democracy. And I would point at two arguments that refute this idyllic depiction of virtual communication.

First, its democratic nature is an illusion. In reality, being conscious of the enormous impact of social media, users experience self-censorship over their own comments, for they measure their ideas and carry out a preliminary process of self-examination. On the one hand, I agree that this prevents people from offending others through an immature use of their freedom of expression. But on the other hand, it results in what is known as a 'spiral of silence'. People feel urged to follow and agree with the predominant ideologies. Users are forced to buy into others' opinions because of fear of social exclusion or attacks on social media, and ultimately, they do not express their true perspectives on the present issues. They remain in silence. In fact, in an extensive study by the Pew Research Center on the spiral of silence and social media, it is proven how the phenomenon is growing due to the self-consciousness of the impact of everything one might say. Through several statistics the study proves the lack of diverse discussion on the media platforms, and how "people are less likely to speak when they think their audiences disagree with them" (23). All in all, what is published is biased by the opinion of the potential recipients, and in the end, creates weak thinking because it is neither critical nor free.

Second, the excessive impact that social media creates in all public spheres also destroys diversity of thought. The spiral of silence and self-censorship evolves into a single line of thought, a pensée unique. Large communication causes an involuntary and spontaneous ideological manipulation. Social media, Mr. Dorsey, is destroying the critical and plural thinking and fomenting a unique and uniform opinion. People are being engulfed by ideologies and their original, free and rightful ideas are being suppressed. This can be seen in the countless examples of euphoric misinformation taking over people's common sense, such as the case regarding Obama's birth certificate, which is so well described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her famous op-ed in The New Yorker. The wide propagation of the messages combined with their simplicity and brevity-yes, 280 characters is still very brief-results in demagogic messages, which end up forging basic and unnuanced opinions and create a uniformity of minds among society. This is a danger. This destroys our freedom.

Furthermore, it is not just freedom that is at stake, but also the dignity of the individual. Social media polarizes society and forges prejudices, that usually derive in discrimination. Perhaps social media is not the cause of biases, but it certainly does not solve them. As another article from The Economist regarding how social media threatens democracy affirms, "instead of imparting wisdom, the system dishes out compulsive stuff that tends to reinforce people's biases." I think the evidence is overwhelming. You just need to look at the situation with the elections last year: I would go as far as to say that there has not been this degree of division in the country since the Civil War. As Figure 1 shows, there is currently an abnormal distribution of political attitudes towards a more extreme liberalism and conservatism respectively. Citizens have been radicalized, and hatred and incomprehension has overcome society. And social media certainly had a role to play on this. We are heading to an uncertain and concerning social and political future. Social media is causing a cultural movement that sails towards a new stage in the history of democracy. The uniformity of society and the suppression of the individual voices and ideas will probably become the trend-just as almost they are now.

Social media has forced people to come up with opinions very quickly so as to react to the overload of information. But these fast opinions result in demagogic statements that reject debate and incentivize discrimination. All things considered, it seems reasonable to assume that both the anthropologic and democratic arguments in favor of social media seemed like the ideal or hope for the internet when it first became publicly available, but it has morphed into something very different-an extremist space to distract, radicalize, discriminate, etc. And how can extremity be compatible with diversity, understanding and respect? Extremity is a danger for freedom, social stability and political success. Societies without diversity will be inevitably condemned to miscommunication and consequent violence. And considering again the phenomenon of pensée unique, it is logical that there be no room for freedom of expression if there is no freedom of thought.

Thanks to my studies in Classics, I have come to hold a more humble perspective over critical thinking and intellectual development. Reading the great philosophers and poets I now venerate and admire rhetoric and proper argumentation. And therefore, when I look around at the environment of social media, I am worried for the next decades. In fact, the current situation has reinforced my respect and admiration for intellectual thought and has made me realize the importance of argumentation. Education in critical thinking is now more important than ever, Mr. Dorsey, and Twitter is not contributing to it.

When I recall the political panorama in Antiquity and Classical Greece, a sharp contrast arises with the modern dynamics. How far we have come in the social scene! For better and for worse. Back then, when democracy was properly founded, wisdom was the rule and formal debate the uniting tool. Now ignorance is the rule and disrespectful debate the battleground for divisions. In the Classical world, the circumstances were very different. Only citizens with a certain status could vote and political participation was primarily seen as an honor rather than a right. There were duties that came with it, and they all sprang from proper knowledge-wisdom. Plato, in fact, explained this reality in his famous metaphor of the ship of state in book VI of The Republic, where he affirms that a "true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship." I am not saying, however, we should limit the suffrage to a single knowledgeable elite, but it is important to consider those ancient times as models of justice and proper government, in a world where citizenship was a united body of educated people who actually cared about the common good. The history of these first humanist societies ought to make us reconsider the educational situation in our century and the path that citizens are following towards knowledge, which unfortunately, Mr. Dorsey, is probably not the right one.

Earlier in the letter I was telling you I am free, and it seems pertinent to make here a personal confession. Mr. Dorsey, I do not have any social media, I never had, and I never will. This gives me a unique perspective when seeing how most of my friends and relatives are very vocal-and sometimes even aggressive-about public issues, and how their views are usually irrational and not well argued. It is sad, and I truly struggle to have polite conversations with them. You may think that I have no right to an opinion on the issue of social media because I have never experienced it. At first, that might seem a good point, but it is quickly discarded once you understand my situation. I was born in this century, Mr. Dorsey. I have not seen a world without social media, I have seen it grow around me and take over my relationships and the people I know. I would not even say that my knowledge is indirect. What is more direct than a generational link, than living with it in modern society? I am submerged in it, but I do not get wet. My perspective might indeed be different, but certainly not irrelevant.

Now your next question should be the why. Why would I ever live without social media? For the same reason that I-voluntarily! -did not have a smartphone until I graduated from high school. The answer is simple: because I want to be free-to live my life to the full. I do not want to create a false dependency on a system that distorts reality through a virtual lens of partial truths and radical opinions. I want to exalt my nature through pure communication and sincere friendships. I want to protect my critical thinking and live an intellectual life open to the truth and all the nuances that come with it. A famous quote by Miguel de Cervantes in his Don Quixote comes to my mind: "I was born free, and that I might live in freedom I chose the solitude of the fields." But do not think my 'fields' are far from civilization; they constitute my privacy and personal goals, but for the rest, I am immersed in society and trying to bring the light of freedom to the people around me.

I see myself as speaking from a point of privilege. I am free from the dangers of single perspectives that social media implies. Thanks to a humble surrender to the Classical philosophy and rhetoric, and to the demanding conquest of critical thinking, I can argue from experience about the current situation. Plato beautifully described this epistemological dichotomy in his famous Allegory of the Cave, developed in book VII of The Republic. He depicted a group of prisoners chained in a cave and condemned to the everlasting darkness of ignorance and deceiving satisfaction of appearances and mere shadows. But unlike these prisoners, my knowledge-and that of anybody free from social media-is more developed. I speak from a point of privilege because I both see around me the whole mysteries of the cave of social media, and I also know what is outside. I see the whole picture, and I can, therefore, judge and criticize social media from a more knowledgeable and objective perspective. But most people cannot, because they fall in a blind opinion, and think that all reality are the shadows reflected in the wall and the echoes that reverberate in the cavern of biased technology. Thus, from this privilege of freedom comes a responsibility: I have the duty to enlighten the people around me. And you, Mr. Dorsey, need to help me.

In fact, I can at least boast about my identity-because I have one. The prisoners in the cavern, like most people, "see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another" (Plato, 250), but they do not have a clue about themselves. Not just because they cannot see themselves, but because they have never done anything of their own. They lack a true identity to the extent that it has not been freely defined by well-formed and conscious decisions. As the cavern limits the freedom of its prisoners, so does social media destroy the personality of its users by making them uniform and subject to a pensée unique that drinks from the chasm of the 'spiral of silence'.

I hope you do not take this letter as an accusation. Far be it from me to blame you for the current situation. Doing that would be almost as simplistic as a tweet with a mere statement. No. I am not saying it is your fault. And I do not think it would be fair to point at a single person or even a small group of people. It is a social issue. Indeed, society has been affected by technology in the first place, but now the threshold of causality has been crossed: it is now society who shape technology and not vice versa. And that is why these last ten years have been so unpredictable.

I think the problems with social media that I was explaining to you earlier speak to a broader cultural issue. A blind pursuit of comfort will never empower freedom, Mr. Dorsey. It is when someone constantly gives in to his passions that hatred and anger take hold of his will. By considering the value of human virtue and proper ideals of justice, one is able to understand what Aristotle once wrote: "through discipline comes freedom." We, as a society, are being fooled by our own desires of comfort and ease, and that is why we need more than ever the uniting force of a conscious commitment for justice and the common good. And this commitment should become a motivation: a sincere desire to develop a critical mind, an intellectual perspective of proper argumentation and respect of everyone's dignity. I am not saying we should destroy social media. They are a tool, and can, therefore, be used for good. We should not be afraid, because fear limits freedom. We should stand up for our ideas and escape from the tentacles of the spiral of silence. With a healthy self-esteem and a conscious use of communication, "we will"- as Edward R. Murrow said in 1954 - "not be driven by fear into an age of unreason." Thus, I think the solution lies in education. Society should encourage a responsible use of technology, and if possible, complement this with a liberal arts education. A respect for science, rhetoric and philosophy expands the human mind, and empowers, through knowledge and openness, the freedom of the individual. For as one of the previously quoted articles on The Economist affirms with a tone of hope and concern: "Social media are being abused. But, with a will, society can harness them and revive that early dream of enlightenment. The stakes for liberal democracy could hardly be higher."

Mr. Dorsey, let us not fall into the error of being unable to distinguish fiction from reality. Let us not be deceived by those siren songs that are being spread through demagogic messages on social media. They are illusions. Let us wake up from Morpheus' dream. The social networks capture us, "entangle" us and endanger our freedom. Please, Mr. Dorsey, help me wake up society! Use your knowledge to free people through a mature education. I am counting on you. We are all counting on everyone else. The future is in our hands, may we have the strength to freely make it our own.

Yours sincerely,

Rafael Torre de Silva Valera


[1] "O times! O customs!" Cicero, "Oratio in L. Catilinam Prima," 2

WORKS CITED

  • "Do social media threaten democracy?" The Economist, November 4, 2017: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2017/11/04/do-social-media-threaten-democracy
  • Juan Antonio Gómez and Cristina Redondo. "Las redes sociales como fuente de conocimiento en la enseñanza primaria," XII Congreso internacional de teoría de la educación (2011)
  • Kastrenakes, Jacob. "Twitter says people are tweeting more, but not longer, with 280-character limit." The Verge, February 8, 2018: https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/8/16990308/twitter-280-character-tweet-length
  • "Once considered a boon to democracy, social media have started to look like its nemesis." The Economist, November 4, 2017: https://www.economist.com/briefing/2017/11/04/once-considered-a-boon-to-democracy-social-media-have-started-to-look-like-its-nemesis
  • Pew Research Center (2014), "Social Media and the Spiral of Silence."
  • Plato. The Republic: the Influential Classic. (Introduction by Tom Butler-Bowdon) John Wiley & Sons, 2012
  • Rocío Ortiz. "Nuevas tendencias de participación política en la era de las redes," Dossier Telos 107 (2017), pp. 71-81

RAFAEL TORRE DE SILVA VALERA