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17 August 2022

Bruce Daisley: “Twitter wasn’t set up to be about anger and rage”

The former Twitter executive reflects on the social network’s moderation problem and where the self-help industry went wrong.

By Oscar Williams

On 4 August 2020, at 6.07pm, Bruce Daisley was relaxing in his apartment after a long day exploring Beirut. The former Twitter executive had travelled to the Lebanese capital a number of times before. His partner’s family lived there and he had come to appreciate the city’s “gloriously hectic” charm. But during the first summer of the pandemic, it had a different atmosphere. “The roads were clearer,” Daisley writes in his latest book, Fortitude: Unlocking the Secrets of Inner Strength, out later this month. “The adrenalised city was a little calmer than usual.”

One minute later, at 6.08pm, the largest non-nuclear blast in history tore through Beirut. The explosion lasted 30 seconds: “An eternity when you don’t know what is going to happen next,” Daisley writes. It blew through the apartment’s windows and then sucked the air out. Daisley describes it as a “screeching, shrieking noise that set my pulse racing”. The blast laid ruin to the city’s port area. At least 218 people were killed.

Daisley emerged unharmed, but spent the following days processing what had happened. As he watched news broadcasts and read reports, he saw references to the Lebanese people’s “famed resilience”. The term began to grate on those who lived in the city. One resident told a Turkish news outlet: “If I hear one more person referring to us as ‘resilient’, I will lose it. Fuck resilience. We don’t want to be resilient. We just want to live!”

When Daisley, now 50, returned home to the UK, he became increasingly cynical about the term. The tech executive-turned-corporate culture coach, whose first book The Joy of Work was Britain’s biggest-selling business hardback of 2019, began investigating how resilience is taught in schools and practised in workplaces across the UK and US. In the book he went on to write, Fortitude, Daisley takes particular issue with the work of Martin Seligman, an American psychologist whose writing underpins the multibillion-dollar self-help industry. The underlying problem with Seligman’s work, according to Daisley, is that it allows employers, schools and governments to outsource responsibility for wellbeing entirely to the individuals they are supposed to support. Worse still, he adds, it doesn’t actually work.

[See also: Will subpoenaing Jack Dorsey help Elon Musk win his Twitter trial?]

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“Seligman is very evidently a classic Republican,” says Daisley when we meet in central London in late July. “He believes in small government and that the individual needs to be responsible. Because no one thinks this is a political discussion, this Reaganite version of resilience has become the version that kids in pretty much every school in the UK follow.”

The secret to building resilience, says Daisley, is collectivism, not individualism. The Ukrainian civilians who have taken to the front line during the conflict “aren’t in possession of anything more than a collective strength,” he adds. “It’s a fraternity and sorority with other people. And that Reaganite model of resilience doesn’t want you to believe that collectivisation is where resilience lies.”

While Daisley rejects the individual-centric version of resilience that pervades schools and workplaces, he doesn’t understate the significance of personal agency. He argues persuasively that developing a feeling of control over an individual’s future is key to their resilience, in terms of both their mental and physical health. It’s for this reason Daisley is particularly concerned by the rise of fatalism in Western nations. He cites survey data produced by the University of Michigan which shows that, between 1976 and 2015, the proportion of 17- to 18-year-old American high school students who agree with the statement that “every time I try to get ahead, something or somebody stops me” has risen from 44 per cent to 56 per cent. The most significant jump occurred around the time of the 2008 financial crisis.

But Daisley’s definition of agency is different to those employed by followers of what he calls the “resilience orthodoxy”. Writing in Fortitude, Daisley acknowledges that “control might superficially sound like one of the pillars of a standard resiliency model”, given it’s about “people taking command of their own destinies”. But where his approach differs is in acknowledging that while “control is certainly an internal, personal force”, it also has a “significant external, interpersonal aspect to it”. Later on in the book Daisley writes, “It’s not hard to see why economically disadvantaged people should feel a lack of control.”

Jean Twenge, the psychology professor whose analysis of the high school survey data Daisley cites, blames mobile phones and the rise of “helicopter parenting” for the surge in fatalism. Daisley also mentions a further study by Twenge that reveals how high schoolers’ sense of wellbeing rose at the start of the pandemic when they were spending more time with their parents and getting more sleep. Prior to this point, the rise of smartphone usage had resulted in American students getting two hours less sleep a night than they did a decade ago.

But clearly the rise of smartphones and social media has had a number of other pernicious effects too. Social media has blurred the boundaries between people’s personal and professional lives, incentivising them to develop personal brands that they are expected to maintain long beyond their scheduled office hours. In many ways, it has exploited and exacerbated the kind of individualism that Daisley rails against.

He accepts that Twitter, where for eight years he ran first UK and then European operations, has had a range of unintended consequences. When he joined the company from YouTube in 2012, around the time of the Olympics, Daisley recalls it was “this frivolous layer on the top of the internet”. What has happened since, he believes, is a lesson in how technology develops. “Initially it represents this slice of freedom and it’s only afterwards that we realise the consequence.”

Twitter, he believes, “wasn’t set up for people creating personal brands that are about anger and rage. But it’s clearly one of the big use cases that’s developed.” Daisley says that, over time, his job increasingly became about arguing for more rigorous moderation on the platform, in light of the abuse of high-profile celebrities and politicians in the UK.

“The thing that was often said was, ‘it’s not against our rules’,” says Daisley. “The notion that our rules, like the [US] constitution, were bequeathed to us by an act in the past and we can’t change them just felt inexplicable to me.”

Frustrated by the lack of accountability over social media moderation, the Boris Johnson administration decided to write its own rules for the US tech giants instead with the Online Safety Bill. However, it remains to be seen whether the bill will survive in its current form when the new prime minister is nominated next month.

Daisley, who left Twitter in January 2020, says that “every firm that’s got more than a million users should have to publish how many UK-based native English speaking agents they’ve got, how many UK-based non-native English speaking people they’ve got and how many people they have elsewhere”.

He says that if a complaint was made about an incident of sexist abuse, “I know that there was a small team in the Philippines or Budapest answering that. The incentive that they had to answer was, if you banned someone and on appeal, it was overturned, you would get a strike against your name… whereas if you allowed something to stand, no one was going to appeal it. As a consequence, these people had an incentive not to intervene.”

Daisley said that it was inevitable people were having bad experiences on social media given how few UK-based moderators there are. Asked how many content moderators Twitter employs in the UK, he said: “I wouldn’t know off the top of my head but the numbers will be far smaller than you’d imagine – astonishingly small.”

There are signs that the collectivism Daisley espouses in his book are already trumping individualism in real life. Unionisation is on the rise in the US and the UK, for example – a response, perhaps at least in part, to the enormous power wielded by a handful of executives in places such as Silicon Valley.

“Strength comes from feeling connected to other people,” he reflects. “A union is classically one way that people have done that outside of the control of organisations. Organisations can say: ‘We’re going to fulfil those roles ourselves.’ But the reason why unions have grown is because people have said: ‘We’ve marked your homework on that and we don’t think you’re fulfilling them for us.’”

[See also: The dangerous approach of SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son]

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