As Musk buyout looms, Twitter searches for its soul

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A poisonous cesspool. A lifeline. A finger on the pulse of the world. Twitter is all these things and more for its more than 217 million users around the world – politicians, journalists, activists, celebrities, lunatics and normites, cat and dog lovers, and just about anyone with an internet connection.

For Elon Muskthe ultimate troll and arguably the most prolific user whose company takeover is on increasingly shaky groundTwitter is a “de facto town square” that desperately needs a libertarian makeover.

Whether and how the takeover will happen, at this stage of the game, is a mystery. On Friday, Musk announced that the deal is “on hold” and then tweeted that he was still “committed” to it. On Tuesday, the billionaire Tesla CEO said he would roll back the platform’s ban on former President Donald Trump if his purchase goes through, but also expressed support for a new European Union law aimed at protecting social media users from harmful content.

It’s been a messy couple of weeks and only one thing seems certain: the turmoil will continue for Twitter, inside and outside the company.

“Twitter at the highest level has always been chaos. It’s always had intrigue and drama,” said Leslie Miley, former Twitter technical manager. “This,” he says, “is in Twitter’s DNA.”


From its 2007 debut as a shoddy “microblogging service” at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Twitter has always been punching above its weight.

At a time when its rivals number their users by the billions, it has stayed small, frustrating Wall Street and making it easier for Musk to invade with an offer the board couldn’t refuse.

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

“It’s a pot of spirited self-expression that simmers with whimsy, narcissism, voyeurism, hucksterism, boredom and sometimes useful information,” Associated Press technology writer Michael Liedtke wrote in a 2009 story. about the company a few months after it turned down a $500 million buyout from Facebook. Twitter had 27 employees at the time and the most popular user was Barack Obama.

Today, the icon of San Francisco employs 7,500 people around the world. Obama is still the most popular account holder, followed by pop stars Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (Musk is No. 6). Twitter’s rise to the mainstream can be captured by world events such as wars, terror attacks, the Arab Spring, the #metoo movement, and other pivotal moments in our collective history that played out on the platform in real time.

“Twitter often attracts thinkers. People who think about things are usually attracted to a text-based platform. And it’s full of journalists. So Twitter is both a reflection of and a driver of what people think about,” said OnlyFans writer, editor and creator Cathy Reisenwitz, who has been on Twitter since 2010 and has more than 18,000 followers.

Today, Reisenwitz tweets about politics, sex work, housing and land use. She loves discovering people and ideas and letting others discover her writing and thoughts. That’s why she stayed all these yearsdespite bullying and even death threats she has received on the platform.

Twitter users in academia, niche areas, people with idiosyncratic interests, minor and major subcultures, grassroots activists, researchers, and a host of others come to the platform. Why? Because at its best, it promises an open, free exchange of facts and ideas, where knowledge is shared, discussed and questioned. Journalists, Reisenwitz recalled, were among the first to really take Twitter up en masse and make it what it is today.

“When I’m on Twitter, (almost) every journalist, no matter how big their platform was, if you said something interesting would respond to you and you could have a conversation about what they’d written and fairly real-time,” Reisenwitz says. . “And I just thought, this is great. Whatever field you’re in, you can talk to the experts and ask them questions.”

And those subcultures – they are formidable. There’s Black Twitter, Feminist Twitter, Baseball Twitter, Japanese Cats Twitter, ER Nurse Twitter and so on.

“It’s allowed interest groups, especially those organized around social identity, whether we’re talking about gender, sexuality, or race, to have really important group dialogues,” said Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who studies social media. studies studies. media.

In a 2018 study of social media subcultures — Black Twitter, Asian-American Twitter, and Feminist Twitter — The Knight Foundation found that they helped not only question top-down, sometimes problematic views of the communities, but also influence wider media coverage on important issues .

“So there’s a really interesting flow of information that’s not just top-down, mainstream media communicating with subcultures, but empowering different groups, in this case Black Twitter, to have really important, impactful conversations that the media can have. started and distributed to a wider audience,” says Duffy.

Software engineer Cher Scarlett says that while Twitter is far from perfect — and undeniably home to harassment, hate speech and misinformation — it’s still a step above many platforms. That’s because Twitter has at least tried to deal with it toxic content, she says, with improvements such as Twitter Safety Mode, a product now being tested that would make it easier for users to stop harassment. Scarlett has been repeatedly abused online for her advocacy of women in the technology sector.

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


On the other side of Twitter’s immediacy, its public, open nature and 280-character (ever 140-character limit) limit is a perfect recipe for passions running high — especially anger.

“When you interact with fans, emotions can boil, especially if you share something negative about their teams,” said Steve Phillips, a former New York Mets general manager who now hosts a show on MLB Network Radio. “Twitter’s anonymity allows people to take pictures at times, but it’s one of the most effective ways to interact with people with similar interests to date.”

But it’s not all baseball Twitter out there. There’s also the huge, scary, dark part of Twitter. This is the Twitter of Nazis, of insane trolls, of conspiracy theorists and of nation-states funding massive networks to influence elections.

Jaime Longoria, manager of research and training for the Disinfo Defense League, a nonprofit that partners with civil society organizations to fight misinformation, says Musk’s purchase of Twitter jeopardizes a platform that many experts believe is better at curb harmful content than its competitors.

He worries that Musk will relax moderation rules that offered some protection against white supremacy, hate speech, threats of violence and harassment. He says he hopes he’s wrong. “We watch and wait,” says Longoria. “The Twitter we know may be over. I think Twitter as we know it will cease to exist.”

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

“We have witnessed abuse, intimidation, troll armies, bot manipulation and 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 tackle it quickly enough,” he wrote.

Twitter, led by its trust and security team, has been working to improve things. It introduced new policies, added labels to false informationkicked off repeat offenders of its rules against hatred, incitement to violence and other harmful activities.

Since the 2016 US presidential election, social media companies have been making a comeback on how Russia used their platforms influence American politics. Things started to improve in fits and starts, 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 “ideally where most of America sits and talks.” But this doesn’t take into account the fact that most of Twitter’s user base is located outside of the United States – and that Twitter looks very different in the rest of the world, where American segregation and free speech make little sense.

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

“There is a lot of hate on Twitter, especially against minorities. And so there is always a constant battle to get Twitter to suppress hate speech, very often violent hate speech and fake news. And yes, I don’t think Twitter is doing enough for that,” said Shoaib Daniyal, associate editor of Indian news website Scroll.

“Twitter is almost a central hub, directing political activity to TV channels, journalists and WhatsApp groups.”

Musk’s free speech absolutism, Daniyal says, doesn’t make much sense in India, as there haven’t been many restrictions on speech on the platform to begin with.

“It’s pretty filled with hate anyway,” he says. And Twitter hasn’t done much about it. So let’s see where it goes.” Which, given Musk’s brisk nature, could be almost any direction.

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

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