Former Twitter exec on Trump ban, the failure of social media, and an idea to find common ground

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President Donald Trump at Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, boardomh Air Force One en route to Joint Base Andrews, Md. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead, via Flickr.)

Twitter didn’t set out to ban Donald Trump. The president gave it no choice.

That’s the assessment from Mike Davidson, a Seattle-based tech and media veteran who was Twitter’s vice president of design from 2012 to 2016, sharing his perspective on the situation as the guest commentator on this week’s GeekWire Podcast.

Mike Davidson was vice president of design at Twitter from 2012 to 2016.

“This was something that many employees wanted the company have wanted the company to do for a long time; I wanted the company to do this for a long time,” Davidson said. “But the company itself is not out to get Donald Trump. If anything, they let him stick around on their platform for too long.”

The breaking point was Trump’s incitement of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of his supporters.

“If you run one of these private companies, you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I OK being complicit in an insurrection of the United States government? Am I OK with that?’ … The answer to that question has to be no,” Davidson said. “There is no concept of of owning a platform and being able to stay neutral about something like that.”

So what went wrong with social media? And where do we go from here? That’s the subject of the podcast discussion between Davidson and GeekWire co-founders John Cook and Todd Bishop.

Listen below, or subscribe to GeekWire in any podcast app, and continue reading for key takeaways.

Davidson founded Seattle-based citizen journalism startup Newsvine in 2005, and worked as a vice president at NBCNews.com after its acquisition of the company. That experience and his time at Twitter gave him first-hand experience with the double-edged sword of user-generated content.

So how what would he do if starting a social media startup from scratch today?

Answering that hypothetical question, Davidson said he would try to help users find common ground with people who aren’t like them. That might seem like a distant prospect given the social and political climate of late. But Davidson recounted a flight in which he had a constructive conversation with a seatmate of different political leanings, after they first bonded over their shared love of the Seattle Seahawks.

His idea: an app that would pair people with others are very different from themselves. The first step would be to try to make a statement that the other person agrees with. The connection would then respond with another agreeable statement. In the ensuing back and forth, the goal would be to discover how many things people can actually actually agree on, and where they differ.

The idea was quickly dubbed by “Pen Pal” by John, and “Words with Enemies” by Todd, who registered the domain name wordswithenemi.es before the show ended.

As a former executive at Twitter, Davidson offered unique insight into the workings of the social media giant and the thinking of CEO Jack Dorsey, especially as the company took action against President Trump and suspended his account.

“I’ll say 2015 Mike would have been very surprised by all of this, but 2020 Mike, not surprised at all,” Davidson said. “I am not surprised by the way that this is all ending, because it’s been one big slow motion train wreck for the last four-plus years.”

As someone who spent almost four years at Twitter, taking part in key executive meetings, Davidson called the move to suspend @realDonaldTrump a last resort. Trump committed hundreds and hundreds of violations that would have gotten anyone else banned, Davidson said.

The fact that Trump was nearing the very end of his presidency almost certainly factored into the decision to finally boot him, as Twitter realized his power to act against the company was waning.

“When you are threatening to reduce the amplitude of the voice of the head of state, the head of state can do certain things to make your life harder,” Davidson said of possible regulation or retaliation Twitter could have faced if it acted against Trump years ago.

Twitter and Facebook and the other companies that have moved to silence Trump in the days following the violence in Washington, D.C., are just part of the larger crisis of communication that is impacting not just social media but media in almost all of its forms.

Davidson’s views are a continuation of a conversation that started on the GeekWire Podcast last week with Margaret O’Mara, a historian from the University of Washington.

“That’s the problem with the curated news feed,” O’Mara said. “It’s perfect for selling ads. It’s an amazing, amazing, amazing business model. It is not a great way to get the full spectrum of what’s going on in the world.”

Davidson agreed. “One hundred percent,” he said.

As John said on this week’s show, it’s not hard to envision a scary reality where the country is splitting into “red state media” and “blue state media.” Instead of searching for common truth and better information to make smart decisions for the democracy, we’re headed toward a disaster, he said.

Davidson said that disaster is already here.

“When the dam broke is when we started getting most of our news from personalized feeds,” Davidson said. “I think as soon as that started happening we really created a billion different worlds for people. Because everybody’s newsfeed is different.”

Listen to the episode above or on any podcast app for more discussion on the inner workings of Twitter, social media and mainstream media. Follow Mike Davidson on Twitter @MikeIndustries.

Podcast produced and edited by Curt Milton. Theme music by Daniel L.K. Caldwell.

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