We’re witnessing the brain death of Twitter

We’re witnessing the brain death of Twitter

People don’t die instantly. Instead, death is a process of shutting off. Your organs stop working bit by bit when you stop breathing. Your brain stops functioning. While brain death is permanent, your heart can continue beating for a while. The state of Twitter after Elon Musk’s takeover feels similar to this: while the processes that keep it online continue to beat, what Twitter was before Musk is gone forever.

On Monday, December 12, Twitter dissolved its Trust and Safety Council, a wide-ranging group of global civil rights advocates, academics, and experts who have advised the company since 2016. Musk has also welcomed back high-profile extremists such as the white nationalist Patrick Casey . According to data compiled by researcher Travis Brown, others reinstated include Meninist, a “men’s rights” account with more than a million followers; Peter McCullough, a cardiologist who gained a large audience for advocating discredited covid-19 treatments and arguing against receiving the vaccine; and Tim Gionet, a far-right media personality who livestreamed his participation in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

Musk has been a passionate advocate for eliminating jobs, cutting down costs, and undoing Twitter’s safety infrastructure. This has led to advertisers leaving in droves. At one point, the company reportedly lost the business of half its top 100 advertising clients, and it has missed weekly US ad revenue expectations by as much as 80%. Musk’s behavior now poses difficult questions for the brands that remain. The company has stopped enforcing its policy on covid-19 misinformation.

While Musk’s vision of Twitter is resoundingly popular, many others are finding it harder to justify their presence on Twitter, declaring hiatuses and announcing their move elsewhere. According to one estimate, Twitter may have lost a million users in just a few days after Musk took over. Others are giving up on tweeting even if they haven’t deleted their accounts yet. Some of these are high profile: Elton John quit Twitter on December 9, citing the site’s policy changes on misinformation.

MIT Technology Review conducted an analysis in Hoaxy. This tool was created by Indiana University to track how information spreads via Twitter. It looks at keyword frequency and interactions among individual accounts. These results suggest Musk’s new role within this network: effectively, a hall monitor for those on the far right.

The tool plots interactions visually, showing connections between individual Twitter accounts for a particular keyword or hashtag. It also indicates whether the account amplifies the search term to other accounts or is being mentioned by others. Nodes are accounts that are more involved in conversations.

Musk was a key “node” of activity around usage of the “groomer” slur–we looked at both “Groomer” and “OK groomer”– from Friday, December 9, through the afternoon of Sunday, December 11, when we ran the analysis. (We also ran a second query on Wednesday, December 14, which showed similar results.) Musk himself has not tweeted the word–which, according to a report from GLAAD and Media Matters, has dramatically increased in frequency and reach during his tenure. Instead, he has been repeatedly tagged into conversations by other users of the word.

Sometimes, these users are seeking attention and amplification by the man who owns Twitter and implicitly identifying the recipients of the slur as potential targets for harassment. At other times, Musk is tagged in conversations where the slur is used to attack those who directly disagree with him on Twitter–including Jack Dorsey, the company’s cofounder and former CEO, who tweeted at Musk last week to dispute his claim that the company “refused to take action on child exploitation for years!” Musk regularly interacts with a selection of power users and fans, including conservative meme accounts and far-right personalities like Ian Miles Cheong and Andy Ngo. Increasingly, Musk is not just enabling these conversations but he’s also participating in them. He tweeted, “My pronouns were Prosecute/Fauci,” last weekend. When astronaut Scott Kelly publicly pleaded with him not to “mock and promote hate toward already marginalized and at-risk-of-violence members of the #LGBTQ community,” Musk replied, “Forcing your pronouns upon others when they didn’t ask, and implicitly ostracizing those who don’t, is neither good nor kind to anyone.”

Earlier that weekend, Musk participated in a smear campaign targeting Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of Trust and Safety and a key figure in those documents, with baseless accusations of pedophilia. Musk, who had previously been sued for defamation for calling a British caver involved in a rescue operation for a Thai youth soccer club a “pedo man”, did not accuse Roth of being one. He instead jumped in on the replies of a podcast host, who tagged Musk into a discussion about an old tweet of Roth. Roth, according to CNN, was forced to leave his home and go into hiding after receiving numerous death threats. Roth did not respond to an email request for comment. )

He makes decisions on the fly, sometimes through unscientific and easy-to-manipulate Twitter polls.

Meanwhile Musk’s attention to advancing American far-right narratives regarding free speech completely ignores Twitter’s role around the globe. Musk’s takeover is “apocalyptic,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan (executive director of Equality Labs), a Dalit civil right organization in a November call with reporters. Soundararajan was part the Trust and Safety Council of Twitter and worked with the platform on its use to incite violence against India’s marginalized groups. We have an American company operating within a genocidal marketplace,” Soundararajan stated, adding that all of her organization’s Twitter staff have been fired.

Elon Musk’s twitter is both essential and broken. People who have used Twitter for years to seek help, gain visibility and build supportive communities know that there is no other platform. Musk has also made himself an antagonist to certain groups.

Many users, those who aren’t ideologically aligned to Musk, have watched Twitter’s vital organs slowly die and wondered what to do. Do you fight for Twitter’s life and hope that those who were there before Musk’s purchase will outlast him? Or is it time for you to leave?

Katherine Cross is a University of Washington PhD student who studies online harassment and networked networks. She argues that Twitter will never recover and it’s time for people to think like Musk.

” “We can’t force Twitter into doing anything,” she said. “There has to be a reimagining of its place in the internet ecosystem.”

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