As Musk takeover looms, Twitter searches for its soul

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A toxic cesspool. A lifeline. A finger on the pulse of the world. Twitter is all that and more to its more than 217 million users worldwide – politicians, journalists, activists, celebrities, weirdos and normals, cat and dog lovers and just about anyone else with a an Internet connection.

For Elon Muskits ultimate troll and perhaps the most prolific user whose company takeover is increasingly shakyTwitter is a “de facto public square” in dire need of a libertarian makeover.

If and how the takeover will happen, at this point in the game, anyone can guess. On Friday, Musk announced the deal was “on hold,” then tweeted that he was still “committed to it.” On Tuesday, Tesla’s billionaire CEO said he would reverse the ban on former President Donald Trump’s platform if his purchase goes ahead, but also voiced support for a new European Union law to protect social media users from harmful content.

The past few weeks have been chaotic and only one thing seems certain: the turmoil will continue for Twitter, inside and outside the company.

“Twitter at its highest has always been chaos. It’s always had intrigue and it’s always had drama,” says Leslie Miley, former head of engineering at Twitter. “This,” he says , “is in the DNA of Twitter.”


Since its 2007 debut as a rambling “microblogging service” at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Twitter has always punched above its weight.

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

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

“It’s a pithy potluck of self-expression that simmers with whimsy, narcissism, voyeurism, peddling, boredom, and occasionally useful information,” Michael Liedtke, technology writer at Associated Press, wrote in an article. of 2009. about the company months after rejecting a $500 million takeover of Facebook. Twitter then had 27 employees and its most popular user was Barack Obama.

Today, the San Francisco icon employs 7,500 people worldwide. Obama is still his most popular account holder, followed by pop stars Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (Musk is No. 6). Twitter’s rise to mainstream can be told through global events, like wars, terrorist attacks, the Arab Spring, the #metoo movement and other pivotal moments in our collective history unfolding in real time. on the platform.

“Twitter often attracts thinkers. People who think things through tend to be attracted to a text-based platform. And it’s full of journalists. So Twitter both reflects and drives what people think,” says Cathy Reisenwitz, writer, editor and creator of OnlyFans, who has been on Twitter since 2010 and has more than 18,000 followers.

These days, Reisenwitz tweets about politics, sex work, housing and land use issues, among other things. She finds it ideal for discovering people and ideas and introducing others to her writings and thoughts. That’s why she stayed all these yearsdespite the harassment and even death threats she receives on the platform.

Twitter users in academia, niche fields, those with quirky interests, subcultures large and small, grassroots activists, researchers and a host of others flock to the platform. Why? Because at best it promises an open and free exchange of facts and ideas, where knowledge is shared, debated and challenged. Journalists, Reisenwitz recalled, were among the first to massively attack Twitter and make it what it is today.

“If I’m on Twitter, (almost) any journalist, regardless of their platform size, if you said something interesting would respond to you and you could have a conversation about what he had written and in real time,” Reisenwitz said. “And I just thought, that’s amazing. Whatever field you’re in, you can talk to the experts and ask them questions.

And these subcultures – they are great. There’s Black Twitter, Feminist Twitter, Baseball Twitter, Japanese Cat 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,” says Brooke Erin Duffy , a professor at Cornell University who studies social sciences. media.

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

“So there’s this really interesting flow of information that’s not just mainstream media top-down communication with subcultures, but allowing various groups, in this case Black Twitter, to have conversations really important and hard-hitting that the media picked up and broadcast. wider audience,” says Duffy.

Software engineer Cher Scarlett says that while Twitter is far from perfect — and, undeniably, the hotbed of harassment, hate speech and misinformation — it’s still a cut above many platforms. That’s because Twitter at least tried to answer toxic content, she says, with improvements like Twitter Safety Mode, a product being tested that would make it easier for users to stop harassment. Scarlett has faced repeated abuse online for her advocacy of women in tech.

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


On the other side of Twitter’s immediacy, the public and open nature and the 280 character limit (once 140 characters) is a perfect recipe for passions to run high, especially anger.

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

But that’s not all Twitter baseball out there. There’s also the massive, creepy, dark part of Twitter. It’s the Twitter of Nazis, demented trolls, conspiracy theorists and nation states funding massive networks to influence elections.

Jaime Longoria, head of research and training for the Disinfo Defense League, a nonprofit that works with community organizations to fight misinformation, said Musk’s purchase of Twitter jeopardizes a platform. -form which, according to many experts, was more successful in containing harmful content. than its competitors.

He fears Musk is relaxing moderation rules that offered some protection against white supremacy, hate speech, threats of violence and harassment. He says he hopes he is wrong. “We watch and wait,” Longoria says. “The Twitter we know may be over. I think Twitter as we have known 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 and civility of public conversation, and to holding ourselves publicly responsible for progress”.

“We have witnessed abuse, harassment, armies of trolls, manipulation through robots 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 respond to them quickly enough,” he wrote.

Twitter, led by its trust and safety team, has been working to improve things. He adopted new policies, added labels to false informationlaunched the repeat offenders of its rules against hatred, incitement to violence and other harmful activities.

Since the 2016 US presidential elections, social media companies have conducted a review of how Russia has used their platforms to influence American policy. In spurts, things began 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 “where, ideally, most of America is on it and talking.” But that ignores the fact that most of Twitter’s user base is outside the United States – and that Twitter looks very different in the rest of the world, where America’s party divisions and free speech arguments make little sense.

Outside of Western democracies, for example, users say little has changed when it comes to cracking down on hate and misinformation.

“There is a lot of hate on Twitter, especially directed at minorities. And so there is always a constant battle for Twitter to crack down on hate speech, very often violent hate speech and fake news. And yeah, I think Twitter really isn’t doing enough for that,” says Shoaib Daniyal, deputy editor of Indian news site Scroll.

“Twitter is almost like a central node, which feeds political activity to TV stations, journalists and WhatsApp groups.”

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

“It’s pretty hateful anyway,” he said. “And Twitter hasn’t done much about it. So let’s see where this leads. Which, given Musk’s mercurial nature, could be almost any direction.


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

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