As Musk’s takeover looms, Twitter searches for his soul

A poisonous cesspool. A lifeline. A finger on the pulse of the world. Twitter is all these things and more for its more than 217 million users around the world – politicians, journalists, activists, celebrities, lunatics and normites, cat and dog lovers, and just about anyone with an internet connection.

For Elon Musk, the ultimate troll and arguably the most prolific user whose company takeover sits 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 a mystery. On Friday, Musk announced the deal is “on hold”, while tweeting that he was still “committed” to it. Earlier this week, billionaire Tesla CEO said he would roll back the platform’s ban on President Donald Trump if his purchase goes through. That 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 fired two top executives on Thursday.

That said, it’s been a messy couple of weeks for Twitter. One thing is certain: the unrest will continue, both inside and outside the company.

“Twitter at the highest level has always been chaos. It’s always had intrigue and drama,” said Leslie Miley, former Twitter technical manager. “This,” he says, “is in Twitter’s DNA.”


From its inception in 2007 as a shoddy “microblogging service” at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Twitter has always been punching above its weight.

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

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

“It’s a pot of spirited self-expression that simmers with whimsy, narcissism, voyeurism, hucksterism, boredom 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 the most popular user was Barack Obama.

Today, the San Francisco icon employs 7,500 people. Obama is still the 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 captured by world events such as wars, terror attacks, the Arab Spring, the #MeToo movement, and other pivotal moments in our collective history that played out on the platform in real time.

“Twitter often attracts thinkers. People who think about things are usually 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 think about,” said OnlyFans writer, editor and creator Cathy Reisenwitz, who has been on Twitter since 2010 and has more than 18,000 followers.

She loves discovering people and ideas and letting others discover her writing and thoughts. That’s why she’s stayed all these years despite bullying and death threats she’s received on the platform.

Twitter users in academia, niche areas, people with idiosyncratic interests, minor and major subcultures, grassroots activists, researchers, and a host of others come to the platform. Why? Because at its best, it promises an open, free exchange of facts and ideas, where knowledge is shared, discussed and questioned.

And those subcultures – they are formidable. There’s Black Twitter, Feminist Twitter, Baseball Twitter, Japanese Cats 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,” said Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who studies social media. studies studies. media.


On the other side of Twitter’s immediacy, its public, open nature and 280-character (ever 140-character limit) limit is a perfect recipe for passions running high — especially anger.

“Twitter’s anonymity allows people to take pictures sometimes, but it’s one of the most effective ways to communicate with people with similar interests to date,” said Steve Phillips, a former general manager of the New York Mets who now hosting a show on MLB network radio.

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

Jaime Longoria, research and training manager for the nonprofit Disinfo Defense League, says Musk’s purchase of Twitter jeopardizes a platform that many experts believe is better able to contain harmful content than its competitors.

“We watch and wait,” says Longoria. “The Twitter we know may be over.”

In a series of tweets in 2018, then-CEO Jack Dorsey said the company is committed to “collective health, openness and civility in public conversations, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable for progress.”

Twitter, led by its trust and security team, has been working to improve things. It implemented new policies, added labels to false information, and found repeated violators of its rules against hatred, incitement to violence and other harmful activities. Things started to improve in fits and starts, at least in the United States and Western Europe.

Outside of Western democracies, however, not much has changed when it comes to curbing hate and misinformation.

“There is a lot of hate on Twitter, especially against minorities. And so there is always a constant struggle to get Twitter to suppress hate speech, often violent hate speech and fake news,” said Shoaib Daniyal, associate editor of Indian news website Scroll.

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

“It’s pretty filled with hate anyway,” he says. And Twitter hasn’t done much about it. So let’s see where it goes.” Which, given Musk’s brisk nature, could be almost any direction.

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

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