Twitter is not for dropouts – The New York Times

It was the moment the conservative Twitter tried to cancel itself.

Major social media networks were moving aggressively to clamp down on serial spreaders of false and potentially inciting information, as myths about Covid and voter fraud swirled around the 2020 election. Right-wing commentators and activists swore en masse to delete their accounts.

They included political figures like former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and popular media figures like Dan Bongino, who went on an overwhelming, speckled rant urging fans to follow him into the world of social media platforms. alternative social media – they now include Trump-branded Parler, Rumble, Gettr, Gab and Truth Social – where he said they would be freed from the “tech bullies” of Twitter, Google and Facebook.

It didn’t take. Then, as now, it often seemed that the sport of taunting partisan opponents in a forum they shared – “owning the libs” as many conservatives called this favorite pastime – was the way some social media users had the most fun. Not to mention, that’s how they achieved high status with their peers – and their followers.

There isn’t much more reason today to think right-wing dialogue will migrate into its own self-policing, self-sustaining bubble now that Elon Musk has struck a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion – a deal that will would make the company private and ditch Twitter’s new standards for moderating what users post.

Over the past few months, as platforms like Gettr and Truth Social have come online and grown, the universe of users has expanded – although this growth has been uneven and difficult to justify independently, said experts. Gab, which markets itself as a place where “everyone is welcome”, said it had 20 million users. Gettr, which is run by a former senior aide to former President Donald J. Trump, Jason Miller, said this month it had surpassed five million registered users. Rumble, which has positioned itself as a video-sharing platform for people who find YouTube’s content moderation stifling, said it now has around 40 million monthly users.

Twitter announced last week that it has 229 million daily active users.

Mr Bongino, who said he has shares in Parler and Rumble, was back on Twitter just months after his disavowal. Now he rarely lets an hour of the day pass without saying anything. One day last week, in the span of just six hours, for example, he tweeted more than 20 times.

The fact that so much conservative content continues to circulate has likely contributed to limiting the overall market for platforms that cater to people harmed by measures taken by social media companies to limit harmful and extremist content. And that indicates that even a little moderation released by Musk on Twitter could be the end of anyone needing a separate sandbox.

“There has to be incredible, demonstrated value in getting people to move,” said Joan Donovan, who studies social media at Harvard University. “People have to think they’re going to get something special that they can’t get anywhere else.” In the case of Parler, which benefited from a surge of new users after the 2020 election, Ms Donovan said that special ingredient was the feeling they could say things they couldn’t on Twitter and Facebook.

“You made a very serious effort on the part of incumbent Republicans and right-wing journalists to get people moving, promising special content, promising no censorship,” she added.

The Conservatives’ claim that they are shouted in the public square is not entirely wrong, if the metric is measured in a specific way – say, by traditional Conservative speakers who are no longer regulars on the music circuit. university conferences.

But on Twitter, the voices of the right remain numerous and well represented. Research has shown that Twitter’s algorithms have not stifled the spread of content from right-wing sources, nor silenced right-wing political parties around the world. In fact, the reverse appears to be true, despite Mr. Musk’s intention to make it more impartial.

“For Twitter to earn the public’s trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left alike,” he said this week.

A recent audit by Twitter researchers that looked at millions of Tweets from April to August 2020 found that the algorithms that determine what content users see were actually amplifying Tweets from right-wing lawmakers in seven countries, including United States, more than for the left. -wing legislators.

Separately, the study looked at millions of news articles from American media outlets posted on Twitter over the same period and found that content from conservative outlets performed better. “Outlets with a strong right-wing bias are amplified slightly more than content from left-leaning sources,” he said.

Right-wing accounts have never been purged from Twitter as the sometimes exaggerated commentary suggests, although some high-profile users have been temporarily suspended for violating standards intended to protect transgender people from harassment or to quit. the spread of misinformation about vaccines, for example.

What happened was that the Conservatives ran a campaign to label all attempts at content moderation – a practice similar to how online news outlets or private discussion forums choose comments from users to authorize – like censorship.

“The rebranding of moderation in general as censorship has really been taken up by a lot of the president’s supporters, and it’s become a political cudgel,” said Renée DiResta, who has studied the flow of online news extensively in the Trump years for Stanford’s Internet. Observatory.

This sense that social media companies have engineered a conspiracy to systematically silence right-wing voices, Ms DiResta added, “fuels a narrative of grievance that they are being censored.”

And it’s become wildly popular, picked up nightly on Fox News, daily on the radio, and in the halls of Congress, where Republican lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas complain about “the PURGE, the censorship and Big Tech’s abuse of power”. (Mr. Cruz’s preferred platform for airing this particular complaint? Twitter.)

Some have already predicted that buying Mr. Musk won’t make Twitter much more unmanageable. Despite the company’s attempts to contain the ugliest political rhetoric, there would never have been a way to erase it. Much of it remains, just like bullies and saboteurs, as Ms Donovan discovered recently when she was teaching a class and looking for puppies as part of a demo on Twitter’s search function. To her surprise, pornographic messages appeared, she said.

How both ends of the partisan spectrum view the deal with Musk likely oversimplifies the reality of what his leadership would do to the platform — not to mention the folly of predicting the whims of an eccentric billionaire whose political opinions are full of inconsistencies.

“A loss for people on the left, a victory for people on the right — I think the extremes overthink it,” said Adam Sohn, chief executive of the Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies the spread of ideological content online. “And Elon Musk probably appreciates that,” he added.

His group’s research suggests that attempts to punish bad actors on social media are misguided. When people were banned, they simply migrated to platforms like Gab, where extremist content proliferates among a more determined demographic. “Our research consistently shows that downgrading people drives them underground and only further radicalizes them,” Sohn said.

An analysis of Gab by the Network Contagion Research Institute showed that after some high-profile Twitter banning events – ridding the platform of accounts belonging to Proud Boys, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his InfoWars website summer and fall of 2018, for example — Gab experienced significant spikes in membership growth.

One possibility for Twitter’s future that some progressive activists talked about as Mr. Musk moved closer to finalizing his deal is that left-wing users quit en masse. There is little evidence that this is happening in any meaningful way so far. As was the case with many Twitter whistleblowers on the right, the protests are likely to be very blustery.

“We anticipate there will be an intensification of the rage to leave Twitter,” Mr. Sohn said. “Whether this turns into actual people leaving Twitter remains to be seen.”

Charlie Kirk, a right-wing activist who has cultivated a progressive-antagonistic persona, had his account suspended last month for posting material about transgender people that Twitter said violated its terms of service.

Mr. Kirk’s account was reactivated and he started tweeting again last week, starting with a post that read, “What thought crimes should I commit today on Twitter?” He followed several others, including one that declared the existence of an “undeniable war against white people in the West”.

Then he explained his return to the platform he had spent so much time criticizing, saying, “Due to new management, I’m back on Twitter.”

In fact, there is no new management. Mr. Musk’s deal is not expected to close until the end of the year, when he owns the company and can do what he wants with it.

It looks like Twitter is too big for anyone, right or left, to undo.

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