Arguing about how to fix Twitter has been a popular parlor game in tech and media circles pretty much since the company went public in 2013 and promptly started missing its growth targets.
Lately, though, this game has lost all its fun and taken on the urgency of a public-health crisis. It's social media SARS.
We now know that Russian-sponsored trolls used phony accounts and networks of automated "bots" to stoke controversies and seed the news ecosystem with false narratives during the 2016 presidential election. And it didn't stop after the election. Earlier this month, someone posing as a retired Navy SEAL and pollster from Florida sparked a frenzy in the conservative blogosphere by claiming The Washington Post had paid one of Senate candidate Roy Moore's accusers $1,000.
Then there's Twitter's perpetually futile effort to curb abuse and harassment on its platform. Every few months, it offers users new tools to mute racial slurs or report threats, but even though the company says it has stepped up its rules enforcement by an order of magnitude, users who report abuse typically hear there's nothing to be done about it.
Writing in The New York Times, tech columnist Farhad Manjoo proposes a complicated solution to all this. In his framework, Twitter would mark accounts with "badges of status or of shame based on signals about how people actually use, or abuse, Twitter." People who follow the rules for a long time would enjoy greater reach; trolls, bots, and harassers would find themselves tweeting into empty space.
It's not a bad idea, if Twitter could figure out all the particulars -- a big if for a company that hasn't proved especially adept at particulars. I have a simpler proposal. It's so simple that I can almost guarantee Twitter would never do it. But the company should, because it would solve not just one but several of its problems.
Here's my idea: Only verified accounts should be able to tweet.
Sounds radical, right? But it's nowhere near as radical as it sounds, because the large majority of Twitter users already don't tweet, or do so less than once a month. For these users, Twitter is a place to consume content, mostly content produced by celebrities, comedians, news organizations, politicians, and so on. Their experience would be mostly unaffected if they were suddenly able to read but not send tweets.
Getting users who are happy to "lurk" among others' tweets to generate content of their own has long been a headache for Twitter. That headache would go away overnight were Twitter to embrace what it has been all along for most of its fans: a megaphone, not a ham radio.
Also gone would be most instances of harassment and trolling. While there are exceptions -- a certain president comes to mind -- hardcore violations of Twitter's terms of service are usually the work of so-called eggs (i.e., users who have the default avatar because they never bothered to choose one) and other anonymous trolls with follower counts in the dozens. These individuals feel empowered to vent whatever ugliness they feel like, knowing, in the unlikely event they get suspended, it only takes a minute to start a new account.
To be sure, some unknown proportion of Twitter users who tweet are neither verified nor trolls. The nature of verification would have to be changed to accommodate them. Fortunately, Twitter has recently admitted it doesn't know what the hell verification is supposed to mean. In my scenario, instead of verification connoting what it currently does -- this person is kind of famous, or a journalist, or knows somebody who works at Twitter -- it would mean something more akin to "authenticated." Anyone who wanted to tweet would have the opportunity to prove his or her identity and get the check mark.
You could even preserve anonymity in some form. Twitter would know who is behind every account, but that doesn't mean other users need to. Accounts like Horse eBooks and Goldman Sachs Elevator could still exist. But if they committed abuse, Twitter could permanently ban the people behind them, as it banned Milo Yiannopoulos.
It's not a perfect solution. The ability to quickly sign up and start tweeting immediately has played a role in major political protests from Ukraine to Tehran to Ferguson. There's nothing Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey cherishes more than the idea of his product as an enabler of democratic revolution.
But that idea was a lot easier to buy into a few years ago. Now we know any platform that can be used by people seeking greater freedom can be leveraged at least as effectively by bad actors looking to curtail that freedom. When the powerful and the powerless vie for control of a "neutral" technology, power usually wins.
If Twitter is serious about being a force for good in the world and a haven from harassment for its users, it will have to start by making it harder to tweet without any sort of accountability.