Twitter founder: Trump presidency is product of short attention spans

Matthew Weaver
Donald Trump has said he would not be president if it were not for Twitter. Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Donald Trump is a symptom of a media environment based on short attention spans that is making the world stupider, one of the founders of Twitter has said.

Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of the network, said Trump’s election highlighted a wider issue about how social media platforms were helping to “dumb the entire world down” and undermining our sense of truth.

Earlier this year Trump said he would not be president if it “wasn’t for Twitter”.

Williams was asked whether Trump’s prolific use of Twitter had given him pause for thought, during an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He replied: “The much bigger issue is not Donald Trump using Twitter that got him elected, even if he says so; it is the quality of the information we consume that is reinforcing dangerous beliefs and isolating people and limiting people’s open-mindedness and respect for truth.”

Evans, who has previously apologised for Twitter’s role in Trump’s election, added: “There is a media ecosystem that is supported and thrives on attention, period. And that is what’s making us dumber and not smarter, and Donald Trump is a symptom of that.”

He blamed advertising models that compete for the attention of internet users. Williams told Today: “I don’t think Twitter is the worst case of this. It is the ad-driven media that churns stuff out on a minute-by-minute basis and their only measure is whether or not someone clicks on it.

“Therefore quoting Trump’s tweets, or quoting the latest stupidest thing that any political candidate or anyone else says, is an effective way to exploit people’s basest instincts. And that is dumbing the entire world down.”

Speaking about his post-Twitter venture Medium, a site which hosts long-form journalism, Williams said: “What we are trying to do is give people an alternative. There needs to be information we can trust, which means it has to be funded not by advertising alone. Because that distorts everything.”

He also spoke of how he had become disillusioned about the ability of the internet to make people more intelligent. “One of my big learnings, over the last couple of decades, is that access to information alone doesn’t make us smarter. The fake news thing is one small part of it; another even bigger part of it is the quality and depth of the information. Is it actually building our understanding or deepening our understanding of the world or is it just noise?”

And Williams conceded that internet companies could do more to tackle online abuse. He said: “Providers of information systems and the platforms that our media get decimated on have a big responsibility. It includes removing stuff.

“We are evolving our understanding of what abuse is and how protecting free speech is a lot more nuanced than it sounds. You can be an ardent believer in free speech and also realise that someone’s speech is limiting someone else’s willingness to speak. I’m optimistic that the systems are going to get much better [at tackling online abuse].”

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