Twitter and the Problem of the For-Profit Public Square

Forwarding this very interesting article with some useful links for those who might be interested.

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October, 2022


Musk’s Twitter Takeover: Why the Public Square Can’t Rely on Surveillance Ads

It’s been less than one month since Twitter officially became the plaything of billionaire Elon Musk. In that time, the company that topped our 2022 Scorecard has gone a long way toward unraveling much of the work that recently earned it our top spot.

In other words, Musk has already proven our worst fears about his management of the platform. A decade ago, many in the top echelons of Twitter saw the platform as the “free speech wing of the free speech party<>.” Yet, since then, the company made a concerted effort to improve both its enforcement of rules and its transparency. A lot of this seems out the window<> now. For one, Musk has gotten rid of the entire human rights team and other experts on international human rights standards. Twitter, like other platforms, had in place<> a practice of pushing back against calls for violence from government actors and their attempts to block content. Twitter’s ability to do both these things is severely curtailed. Musk also introduced an $8 fee for “verification” that many worried<> could imperil the work of journalists and activists. This new feature was paused<> on Friday after an immediate proliferation of impersonations of high-profile accounts.
On the platform in question, RDR’s Jan Rydzak has a must-read thread<> on these and other ways Musk is already turning Twitter into a paragon of “pay-for-play anarchy.”
Is a boycott from advertisers, Twitter’s real customers, now the only way to hold the “Chief Twit” accountable for respecting democracy and human rights? This is the question RDR’s Policy Director Nathalie Maréchal asks in a piece<> for our home institution, New America.
Unfortunately, that may just be the case. That’s why RDR has joined more than 60 other civil society groups in calling on Twitter advertisers to demand that Musk #StopToxicTwitter<>.

But if advertisers have that kind of power, that’s only because the system is rotten. At the heart of the problem, Nathalie points out, is that a profit-seeking entity dependent on advertising revenues can never be a truly democratic digital public square. This is true whether or not Musk decides to run Twitter with profit in mind, or by enacting his own murky concept of “freedom,” in other words his own personal whims. (We’ve already seen<> that parodies of Musk seemingly aren’t protected by his version of the First Amendment.)
Social media companies are thus “trying to square an impossible circle”: provide what billions of people have come to see as an essential public service while delivering returns to shareholders. And taking Twitter private won’t free the company of this issue: Repaying the banks who underwrote the sale could cost<> up to $1 billion a year, The New York Times has reported.
As Nathalie explains, and as RDR has pointed out<> time and time again, any business that relies on pervasive and sustained human rights violations will only foster more abuse. And this is very much the case with surveillance advertising. Algorithms optimized to make sure users click as much as possible, to see as many ads as possible, necessarily lead to a major decline in the quality of our information. Yet, moderating content at scale in a responsible way is extraordinarily expensive, and the money has to come from somewhere.

For this reason, RDR will be watching with a close eye the seeming mass migration from Twitter to Mastodon<>. Might Musk’s disastrous first days as Twitter head be the spark that pushes us to seek out new more democratized and decentralized communications systems? And if so, what new business models will emerge to fund them? Only time will tell.

For now, read more from Nathalie about “The Dangers of Elon Musk’s Twitter Takeover and a For-Profit Digital Public Square.” →<>


Ranking Digital Rights is an independent research program at New America that promotes human rights by ranking the world’s most powerful digital platforms and telecommunications companies on their policies and practices affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy.

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