Future of Twitter between the dunghill and civility

Speech on Twitter has never been exactly polite. The loudest voices often overshadow the most flexible and moderate postures. After all, it’s much easier to tweet angrily at a perceived enemy than it is to find common ground, whether it’s about transgender kids or baseball.

In the chaos that has engulfed Twitter — both the platform and the company — since Elon Musk took over the social network, it has become clearer that this is not going to change anytime soon. In fact, it’s more likely to get worse before it gets better…if it ever gets better.

Musk, and his team of tech industry loyalists, took to Twitter just over a week ago ready to destroy the little bluebird’s nest and rebuild it with their own version at breakneck speed. He promptly fired the top executives and board of directors, installed himself as the company’s sole director (for the time being), and styled himself first as “Head of Twitter” and later as “Twitter Complaint Line Operator.” ”.

On Friday he kicked off mass layoffs at the San Francisco-based company, e-mailing out about half of the workers to bring the company down to staffing levels it hadn’t seen since 2014.

Meanwhile, Musk’s tweets remain a mix of crude memes, half-jokes, SpaceX rocket launches and possible plans for Twitter that he seems to consult with his users in real time. For example, after pitching the idea of ​​charging users $20 a month for the blue verification mark and some extra features, he quickly seemed to back down during an exchange of tweets with writer Stephen King, who posted: “If that happens , I disappear like Enron”.

“Somehow we need to pay the bills! Twitter cannot rely entirely on advertisers. How about $8?” Musk replied.

On Saturday, the company announced a subscription service for $7.99 per month that would allow any user to have the verification mark “just like the celebrities, companies and politicians you already follow,” as well as some premium features—not yet available—such as giving preference to tweets from verified accounts. At the moment it is unknown when payment verification will be available. The measure replaces what had been considered a security function whose objective was to discourage the presence of false accounts.

The billionaire CEO of Tesla has had repeated interactions with prominent members of the right who are calling for fewer restrictions on hate and misinformation. He was congratulated by Dimitry Medvedev, a prominent associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and tweeted — and later deleted — an unfounded conspiracy theory about the husband of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was attacked in the house. her.

More than thirty activist organizations wrote an open letter to Twitter’s top 20 advertisers, asking them to pledge to suspend their ad campaigns on the platform if Musk undermines “brand safety” and moderates content. viscerally.

“Extremists not only celebrate Musk’s takeover of Twitter, they see it as a new opportunity to post more abusive, harassing and racist messages and images. This includes clear threats of violence against people with whom they disagree,” the letter states.

One of Musk’s first actions was to fire the woman responsible for trust and security on the platform, Vijaya Gadde. But she has retained Yoel Roth, chief security and integrity officer, and has taken steps to convince users and advertisers that the platform will not turn into an “anarchic hell” as many fear.

Musk tweeted Friday that “Twitter’s steadfast commitment to content moderation hasn’t changed at all. In fact, we’ve seen hate speech drop this week below previous norms, unlike what you might have read in the press.” Still, a growing number of advertisers have suspended their Twitter campaigns as they reassess how Musk’s changes could increase the presence of questionable material on the platform.

The businessman also met with some civil rights leaders to discuss “how Twitter will continue to combat hate and harassment, and exercise electoral integrity policies,” according to a Nov. 1 tweet he sent.

But representatives of the LGBTQ community were conspicuous by their absence from the meeting, despite the fact that members of this community are much more likely to be victims of violent crimes compared to the rest of the population. Twitter did not respond to a message seeking comment on whether Musk plans to meet with LGBTQ groups.

The volatile billionaire has said he won’t make big decisions about content or the reinstatement of suspended accounts — like former President Donald Trump’s — until he forms a “content moderation board” with diverse viewpoints. The council, he later added, will include civil rights groups and others facing hate-fueled violence.” But experts have highlighted that Twitter already has a trust and safety advisory council to address moderation issues.

“I really can’t imagine how it would be any different,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Virginia who is on the council and has worked with Twitter since the platform’s early years in 2009 to address issues such as threats and the bullying. “Our council has the full spectrum of positions on free expression.”

A corporate takeover involves a certain amount of chaos, such as staff layoffs. But the lack of clarity on Musk’s plans for Twitter — particularly his policies on content moderation, disinformation and hate speech — have raised alarm bells about where one of the world’s most recognizable information ecosystems is headed. The only thing that seems certain is that, for the moment at least, the fate of Twitter and Musk go hand in hand.

“I hope that responsibility and maturity will prevail,” said Eddie Perez, who was head of Twitter’s civic integrity team and left the company before Musk’s purchase. “It’s one thing to be a billionaire Twitter troll trying to make people laugh with your memes and clowning around. You are now the new owner of Twitter and have a new level of responsibility.”

For now, however, the memes seem to be winning. This unsettles experts like Perez, who worries that Musk is moving too fast without listening to the people who have been working to improve civility on the platform and instead drawing on his insular experience as one of the most popular users of the platform. the platform with millions of followers who applaud every step he takes.

“You have a single billionaire who is controlling something as influential as a social media platform like Twitter. And you have entire countries (whose) political goals are contrary to ours, and they are trying to create chaos and are courting favors directly” with Musk, Perez said.

“There is no world where this is normal,” he added. “This should concern us all.”

Twitter didn’t start out as a dunghill. And even now there are bubbles of funny, eccentric and nerdy subgroups that remain somewhat isolated from the chaotic and aggressive place that can become when one follows too many agitators. But as with Facebook, Twitter’s rise coincided with growing polarization and a tangible decline in online civility in the United States and elsewhere.

“The conclusion that was reached between 2008 and 2012 is that the way to generate momentum, the way to get attention on any social network, including Twitter, was to use inflammatory language, to test the basic humanity of the opposition” said Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center.

Things continued to spiral out of control as the 2016 US presidential election approached and passed and the new president cemented his reputation as one of Twitter’s most incendiary users. After it was revealed that Russia used social media platforms to try to influence elections in the United States and other countries, the platforms themselves became protagonists of the political debate.

“Do they have too much power? Do your content moderation policies favor one or the other?” asked Rainie. “The companies themselves were caught up in these intense arguments. And that’s the environment that Elon Musk is entering.”

And beyond the eccentric personality, Musk’s own new job description: “Twitter Complaint Line Operator” could prove to be his biggest challenge to date.

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Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.

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