By BARBARA ORTUTAY – AP Technology Writer
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A toxic drain. A lifeline. A finger on the pulse of the world. Twitter is all of these things and more for its over 217 million users around the world – politicians, journalists, activists, celebrities, weirdness and norms, cat and dog lovers and almost everyone else with an internet connection.
For Elon Musk, its ultimate troll and perhaps the most productive user whose purchase of the company is on increasingly shaky ground, Twitter is a “de facto city square” in great need of a libertarian makeover.
If and how the takeover will take place is someone’s guess. On Friday, Musk announced that the deal is “on ice” while tweeting that he was still “committed” to it. Earlier this week, billionaire Tesla’s CEO said he would lift the platform’s ban on President Donald Trump if his purchase goes through. On the same day, he also said that he supported a new EU law aimed at protecting social media users from harmful content. Twitter’s current CEO simultaneously fired two top executives on Thursday.
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All that said, it’s been a few messy weeks for Twitter. One thing is for sure: the unrest will continue, inside and outside the company.
“Twitter at its highest levels has always been chaos. It has always had intrigue and it has always had drama,” says Leslie Miley, a former chief technology officer at Twitter. “This,” he says, “is in Twitter’s DNA.”
“WHAT PEOPLE THINK OF”
Since its inception in 2007 as a scrappy “microblogging service” at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Twitter has always shifted its weight.
At a time when its rivals number its users in the billions, it has remained a small, frustrating Wall Street and made it easier for Musk to turn down an offer that its board could not turn down.
But Twitter has also had an unparalleled influence on news, politics and society thanks to its public character, its simple, largely text-based interface and its sense of chronological immediacy.
“It’s a mixture of witty self-expression simmering with whimsy, narcissism, voyeurism, hucksterism, tedious and sometimes useful information,” wrote Associated Press technology writer Michael Liedtke in a 2009 story about the company. Twitter had 27 employees at the time, and its most popular user was Barack Obama.
Today, the San Francisco icon has 7,500 employees. Obama is still its most popular account holder, followed by pop stars Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (Musk is No. 6). Twitter’s rise to the mainstream can be described through world events, when wars, terrorist attacks, the Arab Spring, the #MeToo movement and other crucial moments in our collective history took place in real time on the platform.
“Twitter often attracts thinkers. People who think about things tend to be attracted to a text-based platform. And it’s full of journalists. So Twitter is both a reflection of and a driving force for what people think,” says the author, editor and OnlyFans- creator Cathy Reisenwitz, who has been on Twitter since 2010 and has over 18,000 followers.
She thinks it is good to discover people and ideas and let others discover her writing and thoughts. That is why she has stayed for all these years, despite harassment and death threats she has received on the platform.
Twitter users in academia, in niche areas, those with strange interests, subcultures small and large, grassroots activists, researchers and a host of others flock to the platform. Why? Because when it is at its best, it promises an open, free exchange of facts and ideas, where knowledge is shared, debated and questioned.
And those subcultures – they’re huge. There is Black Twitter, Feminist Twitter, Baseball Twitter, Japanese Cat Twitter, Emergency Nurse Twitter and so on.
“It has made it possible for interest groups, especially those organized around social identity, whether we’re talking about gender or sexuality or race, to have really important dialogues in groups,” said Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who studies social studies. media.
On the back of Twitter’s immediacy, the public, open nature and the 280-character limit (once 140 characters) is a perfect recipe for high passions – especially anger.
“Twitter anonymity allows people to take pictures sometimes, but that’s until one of the most effective ways to communicate with people with similar interests,” said Steve Phillips, a former general manager of the New York Mets who now hosts a show on MLB network radio.
But there is also the massive, dark part of Twitter. This is the Nazis’ Twitter, demented trolls, conspiracy theorists and nation states that fund massive networks to influence elections.
Jaime Longoria, director of research and education for the non-profit Disinfo Defense League, says that Musk’s purchase of Twitter jeopardizes a platform that many experts believe has done a better job of curbing malicious content than its competitors.
“We’re watching and waiting,” Longoria says. “The Twitter we know may be over.”
In a series of tweets in 2018, then-CEO Jack Dorsey said the company was committed to “collective health, openness and courtesy in public discourse, and to holding ourselves publicly accountable for progress.”
Twitter, led by its trust and security team, has worked to improve things. It adopted new policies, put labels on false information, kicked off repeated violators of its rules against hatred, incitement to violence and other harmful activities. In attacks and starts, things have started to improve, at least in the US and Western Europe.
Outside Western democracies, however, little has changed in cracking down on hatred and misinformation.
“There is a lot of hatred on Twitter, especially against minorities. And so it is always a constant struggle to get Twitter to crack down on hate rhetoric, very often violent hate rhetoric and fake news,” said Shoaib Daniyal, deputy editor of the Indian news website Scroll.
Musk’s absolute freedom of speech, says Daniyal, is not very meaningful in India because there have not been many curbs on speech on the platform to begin with.
“It’s pretty full of hatred anyway,” he says. “And Twitter has not done much about it. So let’s see where it goes.” Which, given Musk’s mercury nature, can be almost any direction.
Associated Press Writer David Klepper contributed to this story from Providence, Rhode Island.
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