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As Musk buyout looms, Twitter searches for its soul

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS / APRIL 25
                                The Twitter application is seen on a digital device in San Diego.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS / APRIL 25

    The Twitter application is seen on a digital device in San Diego.

SAN FRANCISCO >> A toxic cesspool. A lifeline. A finger on the world’s pulse. Twitter is all these things and more to its over 229 million users around the world — politicians, journalists, activists, celebrities, weirdos and normies, cat and dog lovers and just about anyone else with an internet connection.

For Elon Musk, its ultimate troll and perhaps most prolific user whose buyout of the company is on increasingly shaky ground, Twitter is a “de facto town square” in dire need of a libertarian makeover.

Whether and how the takeover will happen is anyone’s guess. On Friday, Musk announced that the deal is “on hold,” while tweeting that he was still “committed” to it. Earlier in the week, the billionaire Tesla CEO said he’d reverse the platform’s ban of President Donald Trump if his purchase goes through. The same day, he also said he supported a new European Union law aimed at protecting social media users from harmful content. Twitter’s current CEO, meanwhile, fired two top managers on Thursday.

All that said, It’s been a messy few weeks for Twitter. One thing is certain: the turmoil will continue, inside and outside of 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 Twitter engineering manager. “This,” he says, “is in Twitter’s DNA.”

‘WHAT PEOPLE ARE THINKING ABOUT’

From its 2007 start as a scrappy “microblogging service” at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Twitter has always punched above its weight.

At a time when its rivals count their users by the billions, it has stayed small, frustrating Wall Street and making it easier for Musk to swoop in with an offer its board could not refuse.

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

“It’s a potluck of pithy self-expression simmering with whimsy, narcissism, voyeurism, hucksterism, tedium and sometimes useful information,” Associated Press technology writer Michael Liedtke wrote 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 employs 7,500 people. 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 chronicled through world events, as wars, terror attacks, the Arab Spring, the #MeToo movement and other pivotal moments in our collective history played out in real time on the platform.

“Twitter often attracts thinkers. People who are thinking 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 driver of what people are thinking about,” says writer, editor and OnlyFans creator Cathy Reisenwitz, who’s been on Twitter since 2010 and has over 18,000 followers.

She finds it great for discovering people and ideas and having others discover her writing and thoughts. That’s why she’s stayed all these years, despite harassment and death threats she’s received on the platform.

Twitter users in academia, in niche fields, those with quirky interests, subcultures small and big, grassroots activists, researchers and a host of others flock to the platform. Why? Because 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 formidable. There’s Black Twitter, feminist Twitter, baseball Twitter, Japanese cat Twitter, ER nurse Twitter and so on.

“It’s enabled interest groups, especially those that are organized around social identity, whether we’re talking about gender or sexuality or race, to have really important in-group dialogues,” says Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who studies social media.

THE DARK SIDE

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

“The anonymity of Twitter empowers people to take shots sometimes, but it is till one of the most effective ways to communicate with people with similar interests,” says Steve Phillips, a former general manager of the New York Mets who now hosts a show on MLB Network Radio.

But there’s also the massive, dark part of Twitter. This is the Twitter of Nazis, of demented trolls, of conspiracy theorists and of nation states funding massive networks to influence elections.

Jaime Longoria, manager of research and training for the nonprofit Disinfo Defense League, says Musk’s purchase of Twitter jeopardizes a platform that many experts believe has done a better job of reining in harmful 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 civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.”

Twitter, led by its trust and safety team, has worked to improve things. It enacted new policies, added labels to false information, kicked off repeated violators of its rules against hate, inciting violence and other harmful activities. In fits and starts, things have started to improve, at least in the United States and Western Europe.

Outside Western democracies, though, not much has changed when it comes to clamping down on hate and misinformation.

“There’s a lot of hate on Twitter, especially directed at minorities. And so there’s always a constant battle to get Twitter to clamp down on hate speech, very often violent hate speech and fake news,” says Shoaib Daniyal, associate editor with the Indian news website Scroll.

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

“It’s fairly filled with hate anyway,” he says. “And Twitter hasn’t done a lot about it. So let’s see where it goes.” Which, given Musk’s mercurial nature, could be almost any direction at all.

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