As a Musk purchase looms, Twitter is searching for his soul

San Francisco (AFP) – A toxic sink. Lifeline. Finger on the pulse of the world. Twitter is all of these things and more to its 217 million users worldwide – politicians, journalists, activists, celebrities, strangers, mores, cat and dog lovers, and anyone else with an internet connection.

For Elon Musk, the ultimate troll and perhaps the most prolific user whose purchase of the company is on increasingly precarious ground, Twitter is a “de facto city square” in dire need of a liberal makeover.

Whether and how the acquisition will occur, at this point in the game, is anyone’s guess. On Friday, Musk declared the deal “on hold,” then tweeted that he was still “committed” to it. On Tuesday, the billionaire CEO of Tesla said he would rescind the platform’s ban on former President Donald Trump if it was purchased, but he also voiced support for new European Union law aimed at protecting social media users from harmful content.

It’s been a chaotic few weeks and only one thing seems certain: turmoil will continue on Twitter, both inside and outside the company.

“Twitter at its peak has always been a mess. This is in the DNA of Twitter,” says Leslie Miley, former Twitter engineering director.

“what people think”

Ever since it debuted in 2007 as a scattered “microblogging service” at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Twitter has long gone beyond its weight.

While its competitors count their users in the billions, it has remained small, frustrating Wall Street and making it easy for Musk to pounce on an offer its board of directors couldn’t refuse.

But Twitter also has an unparalleled influence on news, politics, and society thanks to its public nature, its simple, text-based interface, and its sense of temporality.

Michael Lidtke, a technology writer for the Associated Press, wrote in a 2009 story about the company a few months after it rejected its $500 million takeover from Facebook. Twitter had 27 employees at the time, and its most famous user was Barack Obama.

Today, the San Francisco code employs 7,500 people worldwide. Obama remains the most famous account holder, followed by pop stars Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (Musk is #6). Twitter’s rise to the mainstream can be chronicled through global events, such as wars, terrorist attacks, the Arab Spring, the #metoo movement, and other pivotal moments in our collective history in real time on the platform.

Twitter often attracts thinkers. People who think about things tend to gravitate towards the text-based platform. It is full of journalists. So Twitter is both a reflection and a driver of what people think,” says Writer, Editor, and Creator of OnlyFans Kathy Resnowitz, who has been on Twitter since 2010 and has over 18,000 followers.

These days, Reisenwitz has tweeted about issues of politics, sex work, housing, and land use among many other things. She finds her great at discovering people and ideas and getting others to discover her writing and ideas. That’s why she remained all these years, despite the harassment and even death threats she received on the platform.

Twitter users in academia, in niche fields, those with peculiar interests, small and large subcultures, grassroots activists, researchers and a host of others flock to the platform. why? Because at its best, it promises an open and free exchange of facts and ideas, where knowledge is shared, discussed, and questioned. Reisenwitz remembers that journalists were among the first to truly take on Twitter en masse and make it what it is today.

“If you’re on Twitter, (almost) any journalist, no matter how big their platform, if you say something interesting they will respond to you and you can have a conversation about what they wrote in real time,” Reisenwitz says. “And I just thought, This is amazing. Whatever field you are in, you can talk to experts and ask them questions.”

And those subcultures – it’s massive. There is Black Twitter, feminist Twitter, baseball Twitter, Japanese cat Twitter, ER nurse Twitter, etc.

says Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who studies social media.

In a 2018 study of social media subcultures — Black Twitter, Asian American Twitter, and Twitter — the Knight Foundation found that they not only help challenge top-down, and sometimes problematic, views of societies, but also influence broader media coverage of important issues. .

“So there’s a really interesting flow of information not just from top to bottom, the mainstream media communicating with subcultures, but allowing different groups, in this case Black Twitter, to have really important and impactful conversations that’s taken up by the media and disseminated to a wider audience,” he says. Daffy.

Software engineer Sher Scarlett says that while Twitter is far from perfect — and undoubtedly home to harassment, hate speech and disinformation — it’s still a step above many platforms. That’s because Twitter has at least tried to tackle toxic content, it says, through improvements like Twitter Safety Mode, a product now being tested that should make it easier for users to stop harassment. Scarlett has faced frequent online abuse for her advocacy for women in technology.

“I’ve been on Twitter since I started. A big part of my network is Twitter,” says Scarlett. “There’s really nothing else like it.”

The dark side

On the flip side of Twitter immediacy, the public, open, and 280-character (once 140-character) nature is the perfect recipe for heightened emotion — especially anger.

“When dealing with fans, emotions can boil, especially if you share anything negative about their teams,” says Steve Phillips, the former general manager of the New York Mets who is now hosting a show on MLB Network Radio. “Twitter anonymity enables people to take pictures at times, but it is one of the most effective ways to connect with people with similar interests.”

But not everything on Twitter for baseball is there. There’s also the massive, scary, and dark part of Twitter. This is the Twitter of Nazis, crazy trolls, conspiracy theorists and nation states that fund massive networks to influence elections.

Musk’s purchase of Twitter threatens a platform that many experts believe has done a better job of curbing harmful content than its competitors, says Jaime Longoria, director of research and training for Disinfo Defense League, a nonprofit that works with community organizations to combat misinformation. .

He fears that Musk will loosen rules of moderation that provide some protection against white supremacy, hate speech, threats of violence and harassment. He says he hopes he is wrong. “We’re watching and waiting,” Longoria says. “Twitter as we know it may be gone. I think Twitter as we knew it will cease to exist.”

In a series of tweets in 2018, then-CEO Jack Dorsey said the company was committed to “collective health, openness, civility in public conversation, and holding ourselves publicly accountable for progress.”

“We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation by bots, human coordination, disinformation campaigns and increasingly divisive echo chambers. We are not proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it quickly enough,” he wrote.

Twitter, led by the Trust and Security team, has worked to make things better. It enacted new policies, labeled false information, and fired repeat violators of its rules against hate, incitement to violence and other harmful activities.

Since the 2016 US presidential election, social media companies have undergone a reckoning about how Russia uses their platforms to influence US politics. By surprise, things are starting to improve, at least in the United States and Western Europe.

At its best, Twitter connects people around the world to participate in the open exchange of ideas. Musk recently told the Associated Press that he wants Twitter to be “inclusive” and “in the perfect place where most Americans are and talk.” But that doesn’t take into account the fact that most of Twitter’s user base is outside the US – and Twitter looks very different in the rest of the world, where US partisan divisions and free speech arguments make no sense.

Outside Western democracies, for example, users say not much has changed when it comes to cracking down on hate and misinformation.

There is a lot of hate on Twitter, especially directed against minorities. And so, there is always a constant battle to get Twitter to tackle hate speech, often violent hate speech and fake news. And yes, I think Twitter isn’t really doing enough for that,” said Shoaib Daniel, Associate Editor of Indian news website Scroll.

“Twitter is almost like a central node, fueling political activity in TV channels, journalists and WhatsApp groups.”

Daniel says Musk’s tyranny of free speech makes no sense in India because there weren’t many restrictions on speech on the platform to begin with.

“It’s full of hate anyway,” he says. And Twitter hasn’t done much about it. So let’s see where it goes.” Which, given the mercurial nature of musk, could be almost any direction at all.

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Associated Press writer David Kleiber contributed this story from Providence, Rhode Island.

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