Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history

Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history

Almost from the time the first tweet was posted in 2006, Twitter has played an important role in world events. It has been used to document everything, from the Arab Spring to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. It has also been a part of our public conversations for many years.

Experts are concerned that if Elon Musk sells the company, this rich seam of media and conversation may be lost forever. Given his admission to employees in a November 10 call that Twitter could face bankruptcy, it’s a real and present risk.

Musk himself acknowledges that Twitter is a public forum, and it’s this fact that makes the potential loss of the platform so significant. Twitter is an integral part of modern civilization. It’s a place for people to document war crimes, discuss key topics, and break and present news.

It was here that the raid by the US that would lead to Osama Bin Laden’s death occurred first . It is where you can find updates about Russia’s invasion in Ukraine HTML1. It’s where news of the downing of flight MH17, a Malaysia Airlines plane that was likely shot down by pro-Russia forces in Ukraine in 2014, first surfaced. It is a living historical document. It is a living historical document that could be lost very soon.

“If Twitter was to ‘go in the morning’, let’s say, all of this–all of the firsthand evidence of atrocities or potential war crimes, and all of this potential evidence–would simply disappear,” says Ciaran O’Connor, senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a global think tank. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) has been used to support war crimes prosecutions and serves as a record of events well after human memory fades.

One of the reasons Twitter’s possible collapse is so difficult is the fact that the “digital public space” was built on servers owned by a private company, according to Elise Thomas (Senior OSINT analyst at the ISD). It’s something we’ll have many to deal with over the next decades, she said: “This is perhaps that first really big test for that .”

Twitter’s ubiquity, its adoption by nearly a quarter of a billion users in the last 16 years, and its status as a de facto public archive, has made it a gold mine of information, says Thomas.

“In one sense, this is an enormous opportunity for future historians. We’ve never had the ability to capture such a large amount of data about any other era in history,” she says. However, this enormous amount of data presents a storage problem for organizations.

For eight years, the US Library of Congress took it upon itself to maintain a public record of all tweets, but it stopped in 2018, instead selecting only a small number of accounts’ posts to capture. William Kilbride, executive Director of the Digital Preservation Coalition, says that “it never, ever worked.” The library was not expected to store too much data, and the firehose was too big. “It’s the Library of Congress. They had the most extensive knowledge on this subject. He says that if the Library of Congress cannot do it, that tells us something very important.”

That’s problematic, because Twitter is teeming with significant content from the past 16 years that could help tomorrow’s historians understand the world of today.

“In a way, Twitter has become a kind of aggregator of information,” says Eliot Higgins, founder of open-source investigators Bellingcat, who helped bring the perpetrators who downed MH17 to justice. “Most of the stuff you see from Ukraine comes from Telegram channels that other people follow, but they are sharing it on Twitter.” Twitter has made categorizing and consuming content from any niche easier, tapping into a live news feed of relevant information from both large organizations and small independent voices. Its loss would be felt strongly.

The disappearance of large amounts of information from the internet has been a problem for a while. In 2017, YouTube was accused of harming investigators’ ability to pinpoint alleged crimes against humanity in Syria by permanently deleting accounts that posted videos from Syrian cities. It eventually reneged, realizing its importance as a repository of historical information. “I don’t believe that’s going to occur with Elon Musk,” Higgins says. (Musk didn’t immediately respond to a comment request asking if he would guarantee or assist in the permanent storage Twitter’s history posts in the event that it goes bankrupt. Twitter, as widely reported, has lost its communication team following mass layoffs. ) It’s not only OSINT researchers that are concerned. US government agencies’ concern over the loss of their verified status highlights that many official statements by governments or public bodies are now made via Twitter first. Kilbride says that there is no evidence that these formal records of government agencies were ever archived or how they would go about doing so.

Many users have taken it upon themselves to independently back up their data, while the Internet Archive can be used to permanently store snapshots of Twitter web pages in a more reliable place than Twitter’s own servers. Both methods have their limitations. Multimedia is often not stored with other methods of archiving Twitter tweets. This could affect the large number of accounts that post images and videos from Iran’s revolution or documenting Russia’s invasion of Twitter. Accessing the information requires the user to know the URL of each tweet. Higgins says that it may be difficult to find the tweet if it hasn’t been stored elsewhere on the internet.

Some users are relying on third-party services usually used to make long Twitter threads more decipherable, such as Thread Reader–but trying to turn those into archiving tools is not an ideal solution either. Thomas says that the companies behind these services are likely smaller and less permanent than Twitter. There’s no reason to believe the content will be kept forever there, especially since once Twitter goes away, so will the Twitter thread unrolling business model.

There’s a way to turn off the lights,” says Kilbride. He asks that Musk not pull the plug on Twitter immediately if it goes under. He says, “A structured and managed closure to the service is preferable to the chaos we have now.”

Thomas doesn’t have a good solution to the problem, and as with much of Twitter at present, the outlook isn’t exactly rosy, she says. “We’re going to lose such a lot of digital history if Twitter goes kaput without warning.”

Note: we updated the headline

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