Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s big boss, believes that regulations should exist for over the top (OTT) players but thinks “it does not matter where data sits” when asked about data localisation. Dorsey is hopping off to Myanmar next for a 10-day Vipassana programme but took time for an expansive conversation with ET that touched upon Twitter’s role in the MeToo movement, the importance of US president Donald Trump to Twitter and his belief that there is no complete, perfect solution to tackling fake news. Excerpts:
India is entering a very volatile period with elections and some potentially contentious issues coming up in courts in the next few months. During that period, how does Twitter plan to tackle the fake news issue given that many people feel Twitter reacts late to such events which can have potentially serious consequences?
We agree, it’s a very real problem. So we’re focused on making sure that we are doing our best to look at the network and understand the dynamics that people are using to game the system, to spread misinformation, and most importantly, misleading information. Misinformation becomes dangerous when it misleads people into a particular action. So that’s what we need to focus on. In terms of reaction times, there’s always opportunity to move faster and do better, and we will take that. But I will say that we will never arrive at a perfect solution. That’s not possible and anyone who’s telling you that is fooling themselves.
'Doesn't Matter where Data Kept'
Because as you fix something, people will always find ways to ride around it. The best that we can do is be 10 steps ahead of everyone else and we will do our best to do that. But there are many new dynamics at play that we need to learn from, and experiment around and figure out what the best solutions are. Also constantly evolve those as well. The most scalable thing to do is apply technology to a problem.
Indian regulators are asking global companies to store data locally. Usually, data centers are based in Ireland, and some other markets. A lot of companies say it will increase compliance costs and add a layer of complexity. Which side of the debate are you on?
I’m not on one side of the debate. I would point people to what the internet enables and where the internet is going. And with data it doesn't really matter where it sits on the internet. So I think fighting that is going the wrong direction, independent of corporate concerns. So just looking at the secular trends that the internet provides feels like we shouldn't worry about where the data is.
One of the problems with the social media has been this whole Facebook and Cambridge Analytica problem where users didn’t know how the data was being used. So shouldn’t the social media companies be more transparent about how the data is being used?
Absolutely. Before GDPR we enabled people to go into their settings on Twitter and see exactly how the data was being used and also turn it off.
Will Twitter be a part of any factchecking initiatives in India on social media companies? Have you been thinking about such initiatives?
Yeah, I mean, globally, we always want to experiment with different solutions, fact checking might be one of them. But I don't think any one solution will be the ultimate outcome. So it'll likely be the case that we need to deploy multiple solutions, and this will be independent of countries.
How different is problem of misinformation and misleading information in mature economies compared to emerging markets? Can some of the measures that you took during US mid-term elections be applied here?
I think there's a lot of similarities, because there are similar patterns that are used independent of language or culture or society. So we have learned a lot from the Mexican elections and the most recent US mid-term elections that we will be applying, if it's smart thing to do so, in India as we consider the elections coming up. We want to protect the integrity of the conversation around the elections. Our job is to serve the public conversation and the conversation around the elections is critical. And we want to make sure that we’re doing whatever we can to ensure the integrity of the conversation.
The government has been a key strength area for Twitter in India and you met Rahul Gandhi too on Monday. How was your meeting? Can we expect more political partnerships with the government moving forward?
Well, independent of India, we always want a strong partnership or to strengthen partnership with local governments. It helps us do our job better. And I think it helps them as well. So we always take an opportunity to meet local leaders. And this trip has been no different. So we met Gandhi and we also met the Prime Minister this morning and had really great conversations focused on Twitter and their thoughts and their experiences.
The MeToo movement in India has been a watershed event in the past few months. Twitter has been that one place where citizens, users took the initiative and created awareness and traditional media followed. Your thoughts.
I think it's amazing. I think it speaks to the power of the service and the power of the people using it and where they want to take it. So I think Twitter at its best increases transparency in the world. And this is a very meaningful and important amount of transparency into the experience that many people have, the stories that have not been told. We saw similar things with Black Lives Matter and the injustices coming out of Ferguson and racial injustices that we are seeing in local communities with the local police, the stories were told, and more awareness and acknowledgement is happening because of it. So I think these are the moments that make us proud as people choose us to tell these important stories.
You have said earlier that Twitter should move more towards conversation and that people should be able to follow topics. So how will that help you curb things like hate speech?
I don't know if it necessarily will, but it certainly has a chance, but that directive is not to curb speech and dangerous speech. We believe that's what the product wants to be.
The telecom regulator in India has floated a paper to debate whether OTT players like WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook Messenger should be regulated. Should government regulate communications of digital entities?
We have to consider the specifics of the regulation to answer that question but yes, regulation should exist, I think, as long as the job of the regulators is to protect the individual level playing field. That's a useful function in society and government. And as long as there's no special interests that are trying to protect to clear long standing profits or business practices I think it's useful. I think our role is to help educate regulators on what is possible, what's needed, what we're seeing what the trends are, so we should be having open conversations with regulators all the time.
How has the Twitter India business performed?
India business has done well and I think we have a lot of opportunity here. One of the reasons I am here is I wanted to learn about the country and how people use Twitter here, what gaps we have. It’s not different from the rest of the world. The usage here is great because it’s more conversational.
Has the Twitter India business broken even?
We don’t break that up. I feel that business always follows usage. So we're focused first and foremost on making sure that we are relevant and valuable to people in India and the businesses.
There has been growth in revenues for Twitter in the third quarter, but there was a decline in monthly user monthly active users. It seems that you're trying to change this to the mix in terms of getting more engagement and getting better users. So what are the key shifts you are undertaking to maximize revenue?
We're focused on making Twitter as viable to as many people as possible. That is what we're trying to drive and optimize. And we want that value to be felt daily. Twitter is where people get their news daily and see what’s happening and revenue follows from that.
But Facebook and Instagram are going for the same dollars and they are faster given the size and the volume.
They are different. So we have a very different approach. We have some of the influential people in the world on Twitter and advertisers are looking for people who can influence others and they are looking for something different than what they would find on Facebook and Instagram. A lot of advertisers on Twitter launch something new and are there to generate a conversation, create anew conversation around their product or their service. You can't do that on Facebook or Instagram.So it's apples and oranges.
Countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran have been able to push their propaganda and we've seen a certain weaponisation of social media. How do you plan to curb that because people and countries who have more resources can create their own narratives on the platform?
When we find that anyone uses our system to artificially amplify their message we shut them. We have made transparent the actions that we’ve taken. And you can refer to our transparency report and our recent announcements.
Hasn't Donald Trump been good for Twitter?
He has increased the amount of conversation around politics, policy, and I think that's generally good. I think that's good for the world. More people are aware of the policies of the day and the conversations around those policies, and then we acknowledge what we need to fix so we can move forward, I think that's generally good.