A controversy erupted on Twitter in January over the phrase “learn to Code” and a matching hashtag. That phrase was being directed sarcastically toward members of the media who were being laid off from various left-leaning news sites including Buzzfeed and Huff Post. Twitter got involved on the grounds that the phrase represented targeted harassment and began suspending people. The dragnet became so wide that even the Editor in Chief of the Daily Caller was suspended after replying “Learn to code” in response to a Daily Show tweet.
Tuesday, Joe Rogan hosted Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Twitter’s Trust and Safety lead Vijaya Gadde on his show along with journalist Tim Pool. The entire discussion was over three hours long but there was a lengthy segment devoted to the “learn to code” controversy during which Dorsey admitted the company had been “way too aggressive.” The discussion of the topic kicked off with Tim Pool asking, “Why are people being kicked off for tweeting hashtag learn to code?”
“So there was a situation about a month ago or so where a number of journalists were receiving a variety of tweets, some containing ‘learn to code,’ some containing a bunch of other coded language that was wishes of harm,” Vijaya Gadde said. She continued, “These were thousands and thousands of tweets being directed at a handful of journalists and we did some research and what we found was a number of the accounts which were engaging in this behavior…were actually ban-evasion accounts. That means accounts that were previously suspended. And we also learned that there was a targeted campaign being organized off our platform to abuse and harass these journalists.”
“That’s not true,” Pool said. He argued that the push to ban got started with an NBC story claiming the phrase had started on 4Chan. The NBC account may be accurate but it’s not a complete picture because many Twitter users (who are not 4chan sock-puppets accounts) were using the same phrase sarcastically.
As Joe Rogan pointed out, the phrase actually goes back to some stories several years ago about coal miners learning to code after losing their jobs. It became a meme (admittedly not a kind one) aimed at journalists. As Tim Pool put it, it was a meme “that represents the elitism of modern journalists and how they target certain communities with disdain.”
“We consider this type of behavior dogpiling which is when all of a sudden individuals are getting tons and tons of tweets at them,” Gadde said adding, “They feel very abused and harassed on the platform.”
When Joe Rogan asked why the phrase “learn to code” was considered so egregious, Gadde replied, “I don’t think it is so egregious.”
“So is it just something that got stuck in an algorithm?” Rogan asked.
“No, it was, again, a specific set of issues that we were seeing targeting a very specific set of journalists and it wasn’t just the learn to code, it was a couple things going on,” Gadde replied. She continued, “A lot of the accounts tweeting ‘learn to code’ were ban evaders, which means they’d previously been suspended. A lot of the accounts or tweets had other language in them like ‘day of the brick,’ ‘day of the rope,’ ‘oven ready’—these are all coded meanings for violence against people.”
“And so, in that particular case, we made the judgment call, and it is a judgment call, to take down the tweets that were responding directly to these journalists that were saying ‘learn to code’ even if they didn’t have a wish of harm specifically attached to them because of what we viewed as coordinated attempt to harass them…And we were worried that ‘learn to code’ was taking on a different meaning in that particular context,” Gadde said.
“In and of itself though, it still seems like there’s alternative meanings to ‘learn to code’,” Rogan said. He added, “It still could be used, as Tim was saying, to mock elite, snooty…”
“Speak truth to power. Absolutely, I agree with you,” Gadde interjected. She went on to say, “In a very different situation we would not take action on that.”
Pool laid out the series of events again and said the bottom line was that people were being suspended for “joining in on a joke.” Gadde agreed, “There were for sure mistakes in there. I don’t think that any of us are claiming we got this 100% right.”
“And probably our team having a lack of context into what’s happening as well,” Dorsey added. He continued, “We would fully admit we probably were way too aggressive when we first saw this and made mistakes.”
That’s only a small portion of the full show. I listened to most of it and my general takeaways are as follows:
- Joe Rogan’s show is more interesting than anything on television because it’s not as one-sided and predictable and there is time to drill down on specific issues rather than listening to people recite a handful of talking points.
- Jack Dorsey seems to genuinely care about building trust in the company and also seems committed to explaining why they have made some of the decisions they have made. He also seems aware that there is a general bubble/bias problem with social media companies located in San Francisco. The fact that he is even on Rogan’s show to talk about it shows he’s willing to engage at length and try to explain his vision and admit his mistakes.
- Tim Pool makes a sustained case that the individual incidents pile up and eventually make a heap, i.e. the bias problem keeps expressing itself largely in one direction. He also makes the point that as Twitter becomes the defacto public sphere (something Dorsey himself has said he wants it to be) the fact that the rules are being set by people with a certain perspective seems potentially dangerous.
- Vijaya Gadde is a lawyer by training and seems a bit too confident in the first half of the discussion but does seem to loosen up a bit later on. Maybe she doesn’t feel as free as Dorsey to admit mistakes? She does seem genuinely interested in hearing criticism and learning from it. Again, it’s not clear that solves any of the problems Twitter has but it’s still more than rival social media companies seem able to manage.
Here’s the full show. The discussion of “learn to code” comes about one hour and 20 minutes in: