It has been a banner year for corporate apologies. June’s NBA Finals, for example, featured advertisements from Wells Fargo, Facebook, and Uber that all asked their customers for forgiveness. The CEO apology tour, in which an embattled chief executive goes on a quest for absolution, has become routine, with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Starbucks’s Kevin Johnson recently marching from network to network to win back lost trust.
Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is the latest executive to embark on an apology tour. Dorsey has much to apologize for, including Twitter’s reluctance to kick hucksters, Nazis, and harassers off its platform; the ease with which Russian agents gamed the platform during the 2016 election; and the often inexplicable changes it frequently makes to its service. But in seeking to placate several different audiences at once—including conservatives who claim that Twitter is biased against their views—Dorsey is the rare case where the apologies have only made the situation worse.
The idea that Twitter and Facebook are censoring conservatives has been repeatedly pushed by right-wing media. In April, the campaign gained new legitimacy when Senator Ted Cruz questioned Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s treatment of the fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A and the Donald Trump cheerleaders Diamond & Silk. Then Trump himself suggested that Twitter was covertly preventing the tweets of right-leaning users, including RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, from being seen by a mass audience.
In fact, McDaniel’s tweets were affected by a glitch. Twitter isn’t “shadow banning” anyone, regardless of its alleged political orientation. But the idea has nevertheless persisted, elevated by a right-wing echo chamber that has long pushed the notion that its views are being suppressed by powerful liberal elites.
Because these arguments are made in bad faith, Dorsey is in a tricky position. As the CEO of a public company whose success is dictated by engagement and growth, alienating conservatives is not a good strategy. But Dorsey has taken a bad hand and made things worse. Far from rebutting the incoherent and unsubstantiated accusations being leveled at Twitter, Dorsey has bolstered and legitimized them.
Dorsey spoke to three distinct audiences during his media tour. He sought to reassure investors concerned about the company’s overall health. He also tried to placate critics who have complained about the abundance of fake news and hate speech on Twitter. (Twitter was notably the only major tech company that did not ban InfoWars’s Alex Jones earlier this month, though it did ultimately put him on a time out for imploring his listeners to take up arms against the media.) And he spent a lot of time speaking directly to the bogus free speech concerns of conservatives.
Dorsey tried a “kill them with kindness” strategy. Appearing on Sean Hannity’s show earlier this month, it mostly worked. Hannity is, for all his bluster, a tame and obsequious interviewer, and with Dorsey he was the proverbial dog who caught the car. “I really appreciate you coming on, because I’m sure this is probably the last thing you want to do,” he told Dorsey. Then, over the course of the interview, Dorsey argued that moderating Twitter is complicated and Hannity largely agreed with him.
Dorsey also conceded to Hannity that Twitter hasn’t “done a great job at communicating our principles, the guidelines that help us make the decisions in the first place.” As he told CNN’s Brian Stelter on Sunday: “I think people see a faceless corporation that has … they don’t assume that humans are in it, or that they’re genuine or authentic. They just assume based on what the output is.”
The problem is that no one, very much including Dorsey, seems to know what those principles are. “Being open about our own personal views and what we think about what’s happening is important,” he told Stetler, adding, “I’ll fully admit that I haven’t done enough of that.” But then Dorsey copped to a right-wing critique: “I think we need to constantly show that we are not adding our own bias, which I fully admit is left, is more left-leaning,” Dorsey said. “We need to remove all bias from how we act and our policies and our enforcement and our tools.”
This is more or less what conservatives are asking him to do, all without providing any tangible evidence that Twitter’s left-leaning bias has resulted in discrimination. By acknowledging it in this way, Dorsey gave it unearned credibility—and sites like Breitbart ran with it, suggesting that Dorsey all but admitted his left-wing bias. As Vanity Fair’s Maya Kosoff argued on Monday, this only ended up “perpetuating the cycle that forces him to continually tiptoe around the right.”
Dorsey is in a tight bind. Going to bat against conservative critics would provoke a massive political backlash that his company is not prepared to handle. Meanwhile, doing nothing to combat hate speech and fake news would make Twitter even worse, provoking a different backlash. So Dorsey is trying to split the difference. The cost is that he has emboldened the right wing and only made it more difficult to clean up Twitter.