Many Twitter users — even some of the most vocal critics of founder and outgoing CEO Jack Dorsey — are worried about just how “free” their speech will remain once Parag Agrawal takes the helm of the microblogging behemoth.
Dorsey on Monday announced he was stepping down immediately and would be succeeded by Agrawal, the company’s chief technology officer. The news almost immediately sparked concern among social media experts who sounded alarm bells about the potential for more onerous and widespread censorship and speech crackdowns under the new regime.
“He isn’t a guy who cares about the First Amendment or the Constitution,” digital marketing expert Adam Rizzieri said.
Agrawal certainly hasn’t done himself any favors given previous statements like his Nov. 2020 boast: “Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment … focus[ing] less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.”
Agrawal, who first joined the company in 2011 as an advertising engineer, wasted no time after taking over, rolling out a new policy that almost assuredly will limit speech on the platform.
Just one day after Agrawal stepped in as the new boss, Twitter announced a ban on sharing images or videos of private individuals without their consent.
Twitter outlined the new “private information” policy in a vague — but concerning — blog post.
“When we are notified by individuals depicted, or by an authorized representative, that they did not consent to having their private image or video shared, we will remove it,” the company explained. “This policy is not applicable to media featuring public figures or individuals when media and accompanying Tweet text are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse.”
Rizzieri swiftly speculated that the new policy potentially spells the end of the many viral memes — especially if they’re conservative — that would likely be banned from the platform under the new policy. He also worried about how the change could lead to additional censorship of important issues such as elections or public health.
“If that conversation isn’t allowed to flow freely, it’s a problem,” he said. “It’s going to make Twitter even less competitive than they already are.”
Andrew Selepak, a social media professor at the University of Florida, said the new policy announcement may actually have been timed to take some of the focus off Agrawal as he settles in.
“The timing of it takes attention off of him and puts it on the platform,” he said. “It could have been purposefully timed.”
Selepak noted that Facebook has used similar distraction tactics when in the hot seat. Whenever the media was deep into a news cycle about Facebook’s potential role in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach or privacy issues that may threaten users’ data and anonymity, he said the company has tried to change the focus.
The most recent such shift, amid a “whistleblower’s” testimony to Congress, was Facebook’s shift toward the “metaverse” — an idea of what the “new” internet would look like.
But Selepak pointed out that if the new Twitter policy is applied fairly and judiciously and can be used to prevent people from being “doxed,” or exposed maliciously, it will have “tremendous value.”
But he said questions such as “who” it will protect and “how” the policy will be used, still don’t have clear answers.
Ultimately, he said it will be Agrawal who will be the one answering why “one person is protected from being doxed and another person isn’t protected.”
Overall, Rizzieri doesn’t expect too much of a change due to the switch from Dorsey to Agrawal.
“Dorsey leaving Twitter has been a long time coming,” he said. “It’s not actually a big change here just because this CTO really is kind of Dorsey’s bobble head.”
He doesn’t foresee Agrawal bringing forth innovative ideas that will provide a better experience for users or strengthen the growth of the company from a business standpoint.
“I don’t think he will do anything positive for the company,” Rizzieri said. “I don’t see growth with its current structure.”
Considering Twitter is mostly an “echo chamber for liberal elitists” and conservatives who do use the platform already “expect to be attacked,” he doesn’t believe much will change under Agrawal’s leadership.
Rizzieri said the fact that Dorsey showered his successor with a glowing endorsement and highlighted his involvement in the company over the past decade indicates that the new face is merely a “puppet for Twitter’s establishment leadership.”
Selepak also agrees that Agrawal’s unanimous support from Twitter’s board of directors and praise from Dorsey should be “taken with a grain of salt.”
“The decision was made not to hire a business person to run the company,” he said. “The person in charge of the company is an engineer.”
He pointed out that Agrawal brings the perspective of “how can we make this platform work better?” to the table and hasn’t been forced to figure out how to make the company profitable or how to navigate a PR crisis.
“There’s going to be a lot more scrutiny on him and what he has said in the past and what decisions are made,” Selepak said.
Rizzieri also found it interesting that Twitter gave Agrawal the nod for the top job.
Typically, if a company wants to implement change and innovate, he said they tend to bring in an outside person to take charge — not someone who has been employed by the company for a decade.
With Twitter execs touting Agrawal’s involvement in “every critical decision Twitter has made,” Rizzieri said it is important to take a close look at the outcomes of those decisions.
He pointed out that Agrawal was around for the company’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump from Twitter while allowing terrorist organizations like the Taliban to have an active presence and also was a key leader when Twitter was determining what posts are considered “misinformation.”
And despite complaints of conservative voices being silenced under Dorsey’s leadership, Dorsey did openly promote free speech. When confronted by lawmakers, he was more apt to fight back on the grounds that the government should not serve as social media’s “free speech police.”
Since Agrawal hasn’t had to be the face of the company, i.e., figuring out how to market it to new users, showing consistent profitability under his leadership to shareholders, or discussing things that are “political in nature,” Rizzieri said what kind of leader he ends up becoming really “remains to be seen.”
“It is easy for him to talk big words when he isn’t in the driver’s seat,” Rizzieri said. “Now that he is, he will be responsible for what he says. His first meeting with Congress will be very telling.”
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