There once was a feller named Elon

For Twitter he just made a deal on

Is he free speech’s savior

Or is his behavior

Just something we’ll never agree on?

Social media are the best source of accurate news for Russians trying to understand what’s really going on in Ukraine.

Social media are also the best source of utterly false propaganda for Americans looking for talking points about the conflict in Ukraine they can use to justify their admiration for Vladmir Putin.

Before we get all worked up about Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition and plans to take it private, let’s take a deep breath and de-murkify some aspects of the situation that, to my lay-person’s eyes at least, are in desperate need of de-murkification.

Does Twitter engage in censorship?

No. Censorship is something governments do. Twitter is a business, not a government.

Does Twitter currently engage in excessive editorial control?

This isn’t a yes-no question. It’s a how-much question.

The more editorial control Twitter exerts over the content published on it, the more it resembles a publisher rather than a platform. Oversimplifying, publishers are responsible for the content they publish. Platforms aren’t responsible for the content published on them. But it’s a continuum, not a binary categorization.

Twitter exerts some editorial control over the content posted on it (see The Twitter rules: safety, privacy, authenticity, and more ).

That control doesn’t extend to requiring that what’s posted on it is true, though, so to my eyes it’s still more platform than publisher. Your retinas might reach a different conclusion.

Do government efforts to regulate Twitter’s content constitute censorship?

That depends which content.

Content posted by individual human beings is, and (in my not-very-humble opinion) should be protected by the First Amendment. This also means it’s governed by the First Amendment’s well-established boundaries. Defamation, endangerment, and incitement to violence are as illegal on Twitter as when yelled out by an angry person standing on a soapbox in Central Park.

Content posted by corporations, in contrast, isn’t (or at least, shouldn’t be) protected by the First Amendment. Supreme Court rulings that “corporations are people too” notwithstanding, that’s still a legal fiction. Everything corporations do is legally subject to regulation, because forming a corporation is a privilege, not a right.

The most obvious and clear-cut example of legitimate regulation of corporate speech is false advertising. A company that publishes falsehoods about its products is violating the law.

As for content posted by ‘bots, ‘bots aren’t persons. They have no constitutional rights of any kind, whether deployed by corporations, governments, or autonomously (a terrifying thought).

Does government regulation of “the algorithm” constitute censorship?

No, and with all due deference to the late, great Frank Zappa, this, not the apostrophe, is the crux of the biscuit.

First of all, the technology social media concerns use is the polar opposite of an algorithm. Algorithms apply known rules to turn their inputs into outputs. Social media use neural networks, and as is well known, even the neural networks themselves don’t “know” how they reach their conclusions.

Social media neural networks are, that is, both autonomous and oblivious. Not a good combination.

Of greater significance, the act of deciding which content to bring to subscribers’ attention, whether it’s through the use of true algorithms, neural network “algorithms,” or an editorial committee composed of actual human beings, pushes social media like Twitter and Facebook closer to the publisher end of the platform / publisher continuum.

How about Section 230?

Section 230 was an attempt to define any and all internet services that democratize content creation as platforms. It was crafted in a simpler, algorithm-free time (1996) and needs replacing. Finding even two people who agree on what to replace it with, though, is a challenge.

Bob’s last word: If I was a predicting kind of guy, I’d go along with everyone else commenting about this subject: Musk will take a laissez faire approach to editorial control, including but not limited to removing restrictions on who is allowed to publish on Twitter.

Corrected from the original:

That would move it much closer to being publisher than platform.

And Musk will have a hard enough time keeping that from happening without tearing out the so-called algorithms Tweetsters rely on to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

That would move it closer to being platform than publisher.

But Musk will have a hard time maintaining platform status without tearing out the so-called algorithms Tweetsters rely on to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

If past behavior predicts future grousing, Musk won’t have much patience with the legal need to thread this metaphorical needle.

Bob’s sales pitch: Reserve May 11th, 2:40pm CST, when I engage with the estimable Roger Grimes in The Great Quantum Debate: Is There a Role in Business Yet? as part of CIO’s Future of Data Summit. You can register for the summit here. I predict you’ll find it even more informative than your average Tweet.

Last week, posing as Tinkerbell, I asked you to let me know if you still find KJR valuable. Hundreds of readers took the time to answer in the affirmative.

For a writer, there’s no greater gift than having an audience. Thank you all for letting me know my weekly sermons are still useful.

# # #

I guess I’ll have to publish it here.

You might have already seen the now-not-so-recent piece on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, titled “It’s Time to Get Rid of the IT Department.” (Joe Peppard, 11/27/2021).

It isn’t all that different from Nicholas Carr’s tiresome and business-illiterate “IT Doesn’t Matter,” which, in 2003, led to his earning the Rocky and Bullwinkle Wrongway Peachfuzz award for polar opposite prediction. After all, here in the present, IT saved the world economy by enabling remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was after it became the centerpiece of business strategy, driving the Digital revolution.

Highly visible yet profoundly wrong ideas, even if they’re mere rehashes, require rebuttal, but the WSJ, by editorial page policy, doesn’t accept rebuttals. I guess they don’t like to be contradicted.

So I’ll have to publish my nominees for Mr. Peppard’s wrongest propositions here. Feel free to share.

Proposition #1: IT is a box on the org chart, with its own management hierarchy and budget, and that’s a problem.

KJR rebuttal: If a box, managers, and a budget are problems, they’re problems for every business function in the enterprise. Why single out IT?

Proposition #2: IT-as-partner is a bad thing. And I quote, The problem starts with what I think of as the “partnership engagement model” … While intuitively appealing  this model positions the IT island as a supplier, mandated to build IT solutions and deliver services to the mainland.

KJR rebuttal: Say what? IT as partner … more precisely, IT as partner in achieving intentional business change … is the polar opposite of IT as supplier to internal customers.

Proposition #3: IT is measured on inputs, not outputs. Examples: money spent, system availability, project completion rates, and, OMG! deploying technology on time, on budget and meeting the specs. These don’t, Mr. Peppard tells us, correlate with success.

KJR rebuttal: So fix the metrics. The solution to measuring something wrong isn’t to eliminate what’s being measured. And oh, by the way, if the specs are right, meeting them does correlate with success. If the specs turn out to be wrong, fix the process used to create the specs.

Proposition #4: The Crystal Ball conundrum. And I quote: The partnership model also assumes that it’s possible for the various corporate units to define upfront and many months in advance exactly what they will need from the IT department. The assumption is reinforced by the demands of the traditional yearly budgeting process.

KJR rebuttal: The problem isn’t reinforced by the annual budgeting process. It’s caused by the annual budgeting process. Solution: Fix the annual budgeting process.

Proposition #5: Decentralizing technology also requires some centralization. And I quote, excerpted from an account of an organization that supposedly has eliminated IT: Everybody has to use the same security protocols and software programming languages, and conform to a prescribed architectural blueprint when building digital products and solutions. But within those guardrails, employees have the scope to do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

KJR rebuttal: Presumably, these security protocols, languages, and architectural blueprint are created and maintained by IT professionals, who also establish protocols for assuring compliance. Presumably, these IT professionals live in a box somewhere on the org chart. What should we call that box? Wait … I know! … my hand is raised – call on me! … let’s call it “Information Technology!”

Bob’s last word: Boil it all down, and Mr. Peppard’s proposition is that business departments are in a better position to figure out the information technology they need than a centralized IT organization.

That is sometimes correct, and when it is, IT ought to support DIY IT efforts for all the reasons I’ve written about over the past couple of decades (see, for example, “Stop stomping out shadow IT,” 9/4/2012).

But Mr. Peppard ignores the very real complexities associated with sound, secure, and compliant technical architecture, and especially with integrating what would otherwise result in inconsistent islands of automation.

So DIY IT gets a thumbs up. IT-supported DIY-IT gets two thumbs up.

Making all IT DIY IT gets a big thumbs down.

Even if it does look superficially persuasive on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

Bob’s sales pitch: In response to last week’s column, one commenter pointed out that I don’t make subscribing to KJR easy enough.

And so … if someone has forwarded this to you and you like what you read, here’s where you can subscribe: Subscribe – IS Survivor Publishing.