Is Twitter a lost cause?

Is Twitter a lost cause?
Image via Creative Commons.
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This particular social media giant may be beyond saving, but the idea of a public-interest social network is something worth fighting for.

Twitter is unraveling at the speed of a SpaceX rocket. Things have gotten so bad under the erratic reign of Elon Musk that the future of the social-media company is in question. What, if anything, should be done to pull Twitter from the brink?

From the moment Musk walked through the door, he’s sought to impose his unique brand of creative destruction on Twitter. But the results have been less than brilliant, and far more damaging.

Musk’s takeover deal itself saddled him and his investors with a $13-billion debt load that could force Twitter to default on payment as early as next April, with the possibility of banks forcing the company into bankruptcy.

Bad financing was only the beginning. To help service his debt Musk drastically slashed costs, including laying off half of Twitter’s staff, thousands of the company’s outside contractors, and forcing more than a thousand others to walk off the job. He decimated Twitter’s trust and safety and human-rights teams, making it all but impossible for the company to uphold and enforce critical user safeguards and content-moderation standards.

His on-again-off-again plans to implement a blue-check subscription service were on and off again last week, but not before Twitter’s chief privacy, information security and compliance officers resigned, reportedly out of concern about the plan’s potential risk to user privacy.

On Thanksgiving, Musk granted a “general amnesty,” effectively inviting back on the platform some of the most dangerous purveyors of hate and disinformation. This impulsive decision-making has played poorly with advertisers. Half of Twitter’s 100 top advertisers have pulled their placements since Musk took over, costing the company tens of millions of dollars in monthly revenues. Several told the #StopToxicTwitter campaign that the platform’s weakened content-moderation had increased the risks of their brands appearing adjacent to some of the most toxic content.

The real value of social media

In the midst of all this wreckage one thing is obvious: If Twitter is going to be saved, Musk isn’t the person to do the job. Instead, the company needs to be run by someone who understands that the real value of any social-media venture lies in its ability to attract, keep and serve users.

It turns out that most people go online to find information and news, stay in touch with friends and family, and research how to do things. These users aren’t visiting social media to be harassed or to harass others, or to be scammed by those seeking to make a buck or a billion by selling dubious verification services. Content moderation is a way to give people what they say that they want. As businesses that still rely on advertising, companies like Twitter need to enforce community standards to ensure brand and user safety.

But saving Twitter might require even more: that we recognize the public goods of social networking and put in place additional measures that protect these values.

Some of us have been around the internet long enough to remember the euphoria that accompanied the early days of the Arab Spring, when activists from Tunisia to Iran took to social media to organize pro-democratic street protests. “If you want to liberate a society,” Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim said at the time, “just give them the Internet.”

In retrospect, the sentiment seems naive: The internet was never much of a safe haven for women, communities of color, activists, dissidents or other marginalized communities. And yet many of these same groups have leveraged social media’s global reach to organize and engage more people in the struggle for a more equitable and democratic world.

Rebuilding the public square

So simply giving people the internet is not enough. We need access to an internet that is free from blocking, throttling and other forms of discrimination imposed by internet providers like AT&T and Comcast (a principle known as Net Neutrality). And we need legal assurances that these providers—along with online platforms—won’t conspire with unscrupulous government authorities and data brokers to violate user privacy and subject us to economic and civil injustice.

People need social-media companies to prevent their algorithms from promoting the most incendiary content, to protect all users from disinformation regardless of the languages they speak, and to be transparent about their business models, AI and moderation practices.

We also need to work together to build online spaces that are free from predatory commercial influences, spaces that capture what was good about Twitter or any other commercial platform, without succumbing to profit incentives that often push malicious, sensationalist or just plain false content, while downranking valuable news and information.

For Twitter to survive, its leadership must understand that the company’s success is intertwined with its public-service obligation. For Musk that concept is likely too high a hill to climb, but it’s one he or his successor can’t afford to ignore. Twitter’s ultimate value is tied up in its users and their ability to connect and communicate for the benefit of each other and everyone else.

Twitter may be beyond saving, but the idea of a public-interest social network is something worth fighting for, with or without Elon Musk.

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