SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A toxic cesspool. A lifeline. A finger on the pulse of the world. Twitter is all this and more for its more than 217 million users around the world – politicians, journalists, activists, celebrities, weirdos and normies, cat and dog lovers, and just about anyone else with an internet connection.
For Elon Muskhis ultimate troll and perhaps most prolific user, whose takeover of the company is on increasingly shaky groundTwitter is a “de facto town square” in dire need of a libertarian makeover.
If and how the takeover will happen at this stage of the game is unclear. On Friday, Musk announced that the deal was “on hold,” then tweeted that he was still “engaged.” On Tuesday, the billionaire Tesla CEO said he would reverse former President Donald Trump’s platform ban if his purchase goes through, but also spoke out in favor of a 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: the turmoil will continue for Twitter, both inside and outside the company.
“Twitter at its best has always been chaos. There’s always been intrigue and drama,” says Leslie Miley, a former Twitter engineering executive. “It,” he says, “is in Twitter’s DNA.”
“What People Think About”
Since its debut in 2007 as a seedy “microblogging service” at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Twitter has consistently pushed the envelope.
At a time when its competitors count their users by the billions, it’s stayed small, frustrating Wall Street and making it easier for Musk to step in with an offer his board couldn’t refuse.
But Twitter also exerts 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 potluck of succinct self-expression, seething with whimsy, narcissism, voyeurism, hucksterism, boredom, and sometimes useful information,” Associated Press technology writer Michael Liedtke wrote in a 2009 article about the company a few months after it turned down a $500 million takeover from Facebook. Twitter had 27 employees at the time, and its most popular user was Barack Obama.
Today, the San Francisco icon 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 #6). Twitter’s rise to the mainstream can be chronicled by world events such as wars, terrorist attacks, the Arab Spring, the #Metoo movement and other defining moments in our collective history playing out on the platform in real-time.
“Twitter often attracts thinkers. People who think about things are drawn to a text-based platform. And it’s full of journalists. So Twitter is both a reflection and a driver of what people are thinking about,” says author, editor, and OnlyFans creator Cathy Reisenwitz, who has been on Twitter since 2010 and has over 18,000 followers.
Today, Reisenwitz tweets about politics, sex work, housing and land use, among other things. She enjoys discovering people and ideas and letting others discover her writing and thoughts. That’s why she stayed all these yearsdespite harassment and even death threats she received on the platform.
Twitter users from academia, niche fields, offbeat prospects, subcultures large and small, grassroots activists, researchers, and many others flock to the platform. Why? At best, it promises an open, free exchange of facts and ideas, in which knowledge is shared, discussed and questioned. Journalists, Reisenwitz recalled, were among the first to truly embrace Twitter en masse, making it what it is today.
“If I’m on Twitter, if you said something interesting, (almost) any journalist, no matter the size of their platform, would reply to you and you could have a pretty real-time conversation about what they wrote,” Reisenwitz says . “And I just thought, that’s amazing. No matter what field you are in, you can talk to the experts and ask them questions.”
And these subcultures – they are impressive. There’s black twitter, feminist twitter, baseball twitter, Japanese cat twitter, ER nurse twitter and so on.
“It allows stakeholders, especially those organized around social identity, whether we’re talking about gender, sexuality or race, to have really important dialogues within the group,” says Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who majors in social sciences Media.
In a 2018 study on social media subcultures – Black Twitter, Asian-American Twitter, and Feminist Twitter – the Knight Foundation found that they have not only helped challenge communities’ sometimes problematic top-down views, but also encouraged broader media coverage of important issues influence.
“So there’s this really interesting flow of information that not only communicates top-down mainstream media with subcultures, but allows different groups, in this case Black Twitter, to have really important, impactful conversations that are picked up by the media and.” to the wider public,” 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 ahead of many platforms. That’s because Twitter at least tried to target them toxic content, she says, with improvements like Twitter Safe Mode, a product now in testing that would make it easier for users to stop harassment. Scarlett has been repeatedly abused online for her advocacy for women in technology.
“I’ve been on Twitter since it started. A big part of my network is Twitter,” says Scarlett. “There’s nothing really like it.”
THE DARK SIDE
On the flip side of Twitter’s immediacy, its public, open nature and 280-character limit (up from 140 characters) is a perfect recipe for stoking passions—especially anger.
“Emotions can run high when dealing with fans, especially when 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 recordings at times, but it remains one of the most effective ways to date to communicate with people with similar interests.”
But it’s not all baseball twitter out there. There’s also the massive, scary, dark part of Twitter. This is the Twitter of the Nazis, the insane trolls, the conspiracy theorists and by nation-states funding massive networks to influence elections.
Jaime Longoria, manager of research and training at the Disinfo Defense League, a nonprofit that works with community organizations to fight misinformation, says Musk’s purchase of Twitter is jeopardizing a platform that many experts believe is better at curbing harmful content than its competitors.
He fears Musk will relax moderation rules, which have offered some protections 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 no longer exist.”
In a series of tweets in 2018, then-CEO Jack Dorsey said the company was committed to “collective health, openness and civility of public conversation, and making us feel publicly accountable for progress.”
“We have seen abuse, harassment, troll armies, bot manipulation and human coordination, misinformation campaigns and increasingly divisive echo chambers. We’re not proud of how people have used our service or our inability to respond quickly enough,” he wrote.
Twitter, led by its Trust and Security team, has been working to improve things. It issued new guidelines and attached labels to false informationresigned repeat offenders its rules against hate, incitement to violence and other harmful activities.
Since the 2016 US presidential election, social media companies have taken stock of how Russia is using their platforms influencing US politics. In the beginning, things got better, 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 “where ideally most of America is on it and talking.” But that doesn’t take into account the fact that most of Twitter’s user base is outside of the United States — and that Twitter looks very different in the rest of the world, where American partisan disputes and free speech arguments 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 struggle to get Twitter to take action against hate speech, very often violent hate speech and fake news. And yes, I think Twitter really doesn’t do that enough,” said Shoaib Daniyal, co-editor of Indian news website Scroll.
“Twitter is almost like a central hub that relays political activity to TV channels and to journalists and WhatsApp groups.”
Musk’s absolutism of free speech, says Daniyal, doesn’t make much sense in India because there haven’t been many restrictions on speech on the platform to begin with.
“It’s pretty full of hate anyway,” he says. “And Twitter hasn’t done much about it. Let’s see where it goes.” Which could be almost any direction, given Musk’s erratic nature.
Associated Press writer David Klepper contributed to this story from Providence, Rhode Island.