Inside the Digital Society: Does Twitter matter?

I’ve put off writing about Twitter here, since its recent change of ownership, to see how things would settle down. They’ve not, though, so perhaps it’s time to think a bit about the underlying issues brought up by what’s been happening to it of late.

A personal perspective first, and then some issues of concern.

To tweet or not to tweet

Everyone has their own experience of Twitter, which makes it hard to generalise. Mine’s changed over time, though I’ve never used it as a way to reach out to the world in the way that others have. So where’s its value lain for me, and how’s that changed?

At first I used it as a personal diary and a challenge. How could I summarise an experience – a place, a play, a book, a film, a gig – in (first) 140 or (later) 280 characters? Back there in my Twitter timeline there are hundreds of such summaries from early days.

In COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, I added links to spots of culture that I’d like later to reach again: online art galleries, tracks from the albums that accompanied my days of desk-bound writing and dog walks.

I’m not a social media fan (and don’t use Facebook), so it also proved a way to keep up with the lives of a few close friends (or, as photographs and videos became attached, their gardens, cats and dogs).

So far so harmless. As time went by, though, the febrile state of world and British politics intruded. From a positive perspective, it became a source: a wider range of public interest media and commentary. More negatively, a place where I could choose, if I so wished, to rage against injustice and vacuity. The temptation to do so could be intense, despite the pointlessness.

More seriously, it’s been (and just about remains) a useful way of identifying important articles by other commentators on the digital society. My thanks are due to many fellow swimmers in this growing ocean who tweet good things they’ve spied. And to the serendipity that Twitter used to offer in alerting me.

Twitter today

How’s that experience changed since Elon Musk’s takeover?

There’s lots of talk online, and naturally on Twitter, about this question. Drastic cuts in staffing, changed attitudes to moderation and more efforts to monetise the platform (in the hope it can finally make profits) have certainly been evident.

Musk’s stated “free speech absolutism” – which is focused on the US First Amendment rather than the more nuanced International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – and his abandonment of the previous regime’s strategy for moderation have (it’s generally claimed) seen an upsurge in hate speech and propaganda/disinformation, though Musk’s Twitter also says it will comply with restrictions on expression in different government domains.

Users complain of changes to the platform’s ‘blue tick’ validation scheme, making this dependent on payment rather than verification that a source is genuine; of increased advertising; of the promotion of particular Twitter content (not least Musk’s own eccentric tweets); of the new default ‘For You’ timeline whose algorithm can seem at best incoherent.

A personal experience

Experience of that algorithm does seem to vary from one user to another. Mine has been dire. In place of the useful serendipity based on accounts and interests I follow that I once experienced, “For You”’s become, for me, a source of irritation and annoyance, to the extent I find it useless and no longer use it.

Why? Because, for whatever reason, my “For You”’s been overwhelmed by content I’d not seek out and do not wish to spend my time with. If I turn it on, what am I offered?

Almost nothing from those I personally follow. Very little in the way of useful links to content on the digital society. Instead: a constant selection of content from a few accounts I don’t and wouldn’t follow.

Top pick most times is Musk’s own latest tweet. Yann LeCun’s hyper-enthusiastic AI take is almost always there. There’ll usually be anti-vaccine content and climate-change denial. And always a line of tweets from far-right political commentators in the US and UK. Yes, I’m interested in politics, but there’s almost nothing in this feed “For Me” from the left, the centre or the centre-right: these tweets are all from those well to the right of the current British government and on the hard right of America’s Republicans.

Why? Presumably it’s clickbait. If I’m outraged I’m more likely to engage. And I confess there’s a temptation to go down that line and see just how outraged I get to be. But this is not ‘the public sphere’ that Twitter used to promise or the range of content that it used to offer me.

I know this isn’t everyone’s experience, but I also know I’m not alone. From my perspective, a once-useful platform has become less useful – because the serendipity has gone – and close to unusable except in the way that I’d originally used it: as a personal diary, a way to keep up with friends’ cats and dogs, and of following selected digital society experts that I know I’ll find reliable.

Why microblogging is distinctive

So why does this matter?

First, it’s important to recognise the impact that microblogging’s had on the shape of media and public discourse. This isn’t down to the number of actual users (much less than Facebook or Tik Tok, for instance), but the way in which it’s added to the range of formats and the way they’re used.

Twitter’s a microblog: that is, a very short format through which anyone can publish to as wide an audience as it and therefore they can reach. This was a new medium: there was nothing quite like it before. Its USP – what made it catch on – was that it was free, unedited and made of content that was brief. It took but a moment to compose or read a tweet.

This has great value in itself – expanding the range of content, enabling more people to engage, including those who’d previously have found it difficult to do so, allowing a variety of different kinds of use. But this also comes with complications.

The limits to what can be conveyed

Twitter started with a limit of 140 characters - which was a technical constraint but also gave it its uniqueness. That subsequently rose to 280 and a range of means have been developed to extend it – some technical such as including images, text images and videos; some user-generated such as threads.

Twitter caught on because of the limit to its wordcount, not despite it. That’s what offered something new. That’s what enabled content to go viral, and facilitated the mass followings accrued by some celebrities (and self-styled ‘influencers’).

But brevity’s the enemy of subtlety and nuance. What can be said in so few words is very limited. It lends itself to soundbites rather than analysis; and soundbites – whether witty or just slogans – change the way in which public discourse evolves. Threads and attachments will be read by those who’re interested, but most users will see only headline tweets.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that more subtlety can be conveyed in some languages than others – Chinese for instance – because fewer characters are needed when making any point.)

The consequences here have been compounded by three factors – user behaviour, the economic model and the impact Twitter’s had on media in general.

User behaviour

Most users post the things that they find interesting or fun; what they read is determined by two things – those that they choose to follow and those that Twitter’s algorithm chooses to point out to them.

But not all users focus on the fun. Twitter’s been seen, from early days, as a medium of influence. It’s been used to shape opinion by governments, to market goods and services by businesses, and to raise awareness and facilitate campaigns by civil society. In many contexts that has been progressive or socially positive. But like everything online, it’s used by everyone: for purposes that are socially malignant as well as for the public good.

Freedom of expression advocates have sometimes argued that the best way to counter ‘bad speech’ is ‘more speech’ – but that doesn’t work that well on Twitter.

It’s easy to lie in 140 or 280 characters; much harder to explain a complex truth or counteract a lie. Twitter’s been a boon for those who want to make straightforward information readily available – but it’s also been a boon for those who want to spread rumours or alter public perceptions in ways that suit them rather than the public interest.  The Overton window - the range of expression that's considered mainstream or within the bounds of decency - has been widened: hence so many arguments about hate speech and viral abuse.

The platform’s always struggled with the role of moderation here – balancing what can be said online with protections against abuse and threats of violence, racial hatred and misogyny, propaganda and disinformation. Musk’s shifted the dial here in ways that many (including advertisers and vulnerable users) find uncomfortable.

The boundaries between what is permissible, desirable, responsible and threatening are problematic for all platforms. Most have seen moderation as a necessary approach, but Musk has largely dumped it.

The economic model

The platform’s economic model’s relevant to this. Twitter’s been short of revenue from advertising, and what generates that revenue is clicks. The longer people stay on the platform and the more they follow tweets that appeal to their imaginations (or appal them), the more adverts they will see.

From the platform’s point of view, in practice, short tweets, assertive and aggressive tweets, and tweets at the outer edges of political opinion and social commentary – anti-vaxxing sentiment, for instance, or the kind of misogynistic content that comes from influencers such as Andrew Tate – have proved to be more effective clickbait than mainstream tweets that seek to inform or explain.

Algorithms feed on this unless they’re tweaked not to do so. Those who want to exploit them for political or commercial reasons have become adept at doing so, sometimes through bots and fake accounts – and that gives scope for manipulation of events (such as elections) and of public sentiment (including racial hatred). 

There are complex rights issues here and Musk’s evisceration of Twitter’s moderation capabilities means that it has little scope for dealing with them now.

The impact on wider media

It’s sometimes suggested that this doesn’t matter all that much because Twitter doesn’t have so many users. But that ignores the influence it’s had on wider media and the wider public sphere.

Not all that many users in the total population, maybe, but almost universal use by politicians and by journalists. What goes viral on Twitter leads headlines in the press, on radio and on TV. Quotes from tweets are widely redistributed in mainstream media, and so drive public debate, even on outlets with public interest underpinnings like the BBC.

This is not, of course, the first shift in media usage patterns of this kind that there has been – comparisons are often made with printing, newspapers, radio, television, Facebook and the like. But such changes in media patterns are disruptive. It takes time for them to settle down.

The balance between information and disinformation, and that between permissive and protective rights, are in flux; and there are powerful interests on both sides of both these balances.

The future

Musk’s approach to Twitter – monetising where possible, removing the capacity for moderation, replacing the capacity to respond to press enquiries with a “poo emoji” – suggests to some that it may not retain its influence and impact. That’s possible, but it’s unlikely to disappear.  I’ll finish with three questions that it raises for those concerned with governance of platforms.

First, ownership.

Twitter’s now owned by an individual. That’s not unusual in the print media and consistent too with the dominance of individuals in other online platforms (such as Amazon and Facebook/Meta). But it is unusual in the wider corporate environment, where boards of directors and multiplicities of stakeholders mean that chief executives are more accountable.

And it’s very much at odds with the ethos that’s prevailed in internet governance. There’s nothing multistakeholder about a platform that’s controlled by an individual.

Second, monopoly.

OK, so Twitter’s technically not one. It’s (largely) absent from China and there are other microblogging platforms in the West. But in most countries it is by far the most important platform of its kind. The extent to which Twitter's used by politicians and by mainstream media reinforce its market dominance.

Its established user base will be difficult to shift, and building an alternative would require great capital investment with the risk of long-term losses.

Third, reach.

Monopolies in private hands are problematic. They tend to serve the interests of their owners (whether individuals or shareholders) rather than the wider public – that’s inherent to their goal as private businesses. In most economic contexts, regulation would require monopolies to balance private and public interests, but in Twitter’s case there isn’t any. Nor is it bound by principles of public interest media. And it reaches across international boundaries, potentially exerting influence on the politics of many countries from its base in one.

In some ways, Wikipedia is comparable (though not profit-oriented), but it’s handled the responsibilities thar arise from global reach and quasi-monopolistic power - through commitments to verification and balancing opinion and a novel kind of moderation exercised through its collective of contributors.

Twitter, by contrast, is an open platform but one whose algorithms can be highly influential in determining what users see. As my own experience has shown, its ‘For You’ algorithm serves up a menu that can be highly partisan and is entirely opaque. That algorithm-led 'For You' timeline has become the default stream for many users.

This gives enormous power to those who oversee the algorithm. The relationship between it and its owner’s therefore critical. There are obvious risks if that owner has powerful commercial interests or strong political associations – especially when a platform has achieved extensive market dominance in many countries round the world.  Think of the potential impact on elections; think of that in countries where intercommunal conflict becomes violent.

The future

This is a longer blog than usual on a subject that may appear less fundamental than others in the series. But Twitter’s an important part of the digital ecosystem, with extensive influence beyond its user base. Those concerned with internet governance – not least with multistakeholderism – should pay more attention to the way it’s going and the model it might set.

 

Image: twitter dinero by Esther Vargas via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

David Souter writes a fortnightly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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