Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Let’s face it, Donald Trump is no Sir Samuel Vimes.

Donald Trump is President of the United States – like it or not.

Sir Samuel Vimes is Commander of the City Watch in Terry Pratchett’s fictional Ankh-Morpork.

Only one of these men has ever pondered the question: Who Will Guard the Guards Themselves? And when Sam Vimes answers “I do,” in Pratchett’s “Thud!” you believe him, even if he’s got the Summoning Dark driving him, he still knows the difference between good and bad.

Trump, well, Trump knows what Trump knows.

But it still begs the question: Who is watching Trump?

Jennifer Grygiel, writing at Slate.com, suggests that in the case of the president’s Twitter account, it ought to be Twitter “prevent[ing] the world from stumbling into nuclear annihilation.”

Her suggestion is several shades of dumb. Here it is in full:

A premoderation system would be strongly biased in favor of publishing tweets—in fact, if it worked right, Twitter would rarely, if ever, actually get involved. This wouldn’t be like a commenting system in which every utterance needs to be approved before being published. It would be much more passive. There would be, say, a 30-second delay on every tweet (so a bit longer than a live TV delay), during which time someone from Twitter’s team would have to look at it. This would not be a task for algorithms—we would need actual, smart humans on the job. (Twitter would have to pay these people awfully well and rotate them out frequently, of course—spending all day staring at a screen waiting for a handful of Trump’s tweets would be terrible.)

If nothing is clearly dangerous, the tweet would go live as normal. But if there were a major issue—like a threat of military action, or something suggesting that the account had been compromised—then the Twitter representative would make sure that the tweet doesn’t go live. Twitter would need a detailed social media triage and crisis communications plan, one that outlined how things should be escalated and managed.

I reiterate: Grygiel suggests Twitter be the last stand between a Trump tweet and a panicked military reaction.

This, from the company that admitted in 2015 that it “sucks at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform, and we’ve sucked at it for years.”

"It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day” the leaked memo says. “We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”

These are the geniuses Grygiel wants between Trump and Armageddon.

Here’s a better suggestion: Stop assuming anything President Trump – or any bombastic figure, for that matter – says on Twitter is official policy.

I know that’s a tall order, specifically with the current President who enjoys spouting off on Twitter. And in this day and age where we have more than one reactionary president (eating steak, not grazing) in charge of countries around the world, it’s easy to imagine the scrambling of fighter jets right after a tweet from one of them. Ronald Reagan’s joke about “we begin bombing in five minutes” didn’t result in Armageddon. It did result in the Soviet Far East Army going on alert for 30 minutes, but nothing more. Because there were no follow-up actions that could be verified through standard diplomatic or military detection.

The Pentagon’s “what the what” reaction to Trump’s tweet on reinstating the ban on transgendered people joining the military should demonstrate in our government at least there are already functioning checks that disregard Trump’s tweets as policy. I expect the ban will not be reinstated, no matter the bombast displayed in tweeting it before consulting the military. Those who fear Trump seem to have forgotten that we do have checks and balances in this government.

But what about the others, you ask?

Well, they, too, should look at Trump’s past behavior on Twitter and realize it’s just his method of spreading horseshit, nothing more. Just because he’s mouthing off on Twitter doesn’t mean the chain of command in government has suddenly changed and assigned Trump dictatorial, tweet-fueled power. Twitter simply amps up the noise factor while the signal remains constant.

And if Twitter wants to do this kind of vetting, you can bet there would be strong interest in seeing Twitter become, shall we say, a tad bit more regulated by the government than it is now. Does Twitter really want to shoulder the responsibility of putting a non-governmental entity in charge of vetting government tweets? (I know this goes contrary to my argument that the tweets are nothing but bombast, but you have to consider this argument would come up forcefully if Twitter did get into the vetting business.)

With Twitter watching the guards, who would we watching Twitter? Sam Vimes can say he is the one guarding the guards, and at the same time guarding himself. Because he’s a fictional character. Twitter may publish President Trump’s fiction, but it is in no place whatsoever to guard the guards.

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