For me, it’s a matter of conscience. I can’t use Twitter anymore
I felt moved to write this article after reading a post on Mastodon this morning. I am paraphrasing the post’s contents, because it’s not my intention to call out or embarrass any individual. I am sure it’s a sentiment shared by many. But it concerned me so deeply that I wanted to compose a measured response.
I fully appreciate that preachy posts castigating people for their choices can be counterproductive. It’s not my place to tell anyone else what social network to use or to judge them for their choice. But I have decided to write about the thinking I have done that has led me to stop using Twitter, in case it gets someone else thinking.
The gist of the post that inspired me to write this was that its author was using Twitter more than Mastodon, because despite dire predictions, Twitter had not fallen over. Third-party apps are still useable. And the author only follows nice people on Twitter so their timeline remained unaffected by hate speech.
Recent events at Twitter have created quite the epiphany for me. The first thing that I now fully understand is that I gave away to a corporation something precious, something of value. My content. Unlike a podcast hosting platform, I didn’t pay for access to facilities that allowed me to share content that remained my intellectual property, I willingly gave it away so that corporations could make money from it. It wasn’t always this way.
I have been online for over 35 years. I started with bulletin board systems. You might call them instances. We used technologies like Fidonet to share content around the world. You might call that a form of federation. When individuals behaved inappropriately, members of our community dealt with the problem. The system operator had the right to do so because they owned the BBS, and you were their guest. If you disagreed with the rules, you could find another BBS that had different, or more relaxed rules.
As a totally blind teenager comparatively geographically isolated in New Zealand, being online opened my world and possibly even saved my life. It connected me with blindness consumer organisations overseas and exposed me to a view of blindness I hadn’t heard of before. Being online gave me hope when I needed it most, at a time when I felt an overwhelming despondency about the outlook for my future as a blind person. I made friends I am still in touch with 35 years on.
Technology changed, more users came along and pipes got much bigger. Then the corporates came. They created a new type of service called a social network. They were services that were centralised, easy to sign up for and use. They didn’t charge us for the services, because The more time you and I spent on those services, the more attractive the services were to advertisers. The current big players played a long game. The services were innocuous enough at first, because there was no viable business model until they had a critical mass of users. Once again, people forged many quality friendships. For many people that belonged to a community of interest, like the blind community and other disabled people, it brought us together to share tips and tricks, to bond over common experiences, and increasingly to campaign.
But then things started to change. Not only did it matter how many users a social network had, the length of our sessions mattered too. The longer we stayed, the more ads we were exposed to, and the more money the corporation made.
“Sticky content” was king. Controversy tends to cause more interaction, so they developed sophisticated algorithms to promote it. Controversy is contagious, it breeds more controversy, since too many of us will react, rather than respond, to provocation.
Like lab rats, we developed a conditioned response. The social media giants spent big bucks perfecting the art of the dopamine hit whenever our social media post was rewarded with a bunch of push notifications validating our view. Many also felt an addictive sense of foreboding, wondering if we were about to be dragged into more online drama. The more controversial we were, the more of a dopamine hit we got as the push notifications went wild. Social media became no better than the tobacco, alcohol or processed food industries.
The more addicted we became, the more product we supplied for free to social media companies and the more attractive the services became to advertisers.
Rampant and harmful disinformation and various forms of violence including specific threats, harassment and hate speech caused regulators to take notice. Reluctantly, the social networks took more of a hands-on approach.
But the problem with the virtual town square being run by a corporation is that corporations can be bought and sold. Now, one man owns Twitter. It is worth reflecting on the behaviour of that individual even before he was Twitter’s owner.
You might remember that back in June 2018, the world collectively held its breath as a dozen Thai boys who were part of a soccer team, along with their coach, were trapped in a flooded cave in Northern Thailand. A carefully planned rescue saw them all brought out to safety. Elon Musk suggested some of his technology people could design a small submarine to get them out, and I believe eventually that that submarine did actually turn up although it was never used.
Vernon Unsworth was at the time sixty-four and an experienced cave explorer from Britain who helped to recruit divers to perform that rescue. Vernon Unsworth was later awarded an MBE, Member of the British Empire Award, by the queen for his part in the rescue. Mr Unsworth suggested that Elon Musk’s proposal was no more than a publicity stunt, and that he should “stick his submarine where it hurts.” Not exactly a classy comment, but Elon Musk took things to a completely new and classless level by referring to Vernon Unsworth as and I quote him, “A pedoguy.”
Elon Musk later apologised and deleted the tweet, but when you’re talking about a situation involving twelve young boys, and you make that comment merely because someone experienced in the field is sceptical about a plan, the intention is clear. That is a despicable thing to say about anyone. It is one of the worst things that you could say about anyone. A Buzzfeed reporter later contacted Elon Musk for comment about the “pedoguy” tweet. Elon Musk replied, “Stop defending child rapists.” This all happened because Elon Musk took offense at something a hero said. He had no basis, no evidence for making the comment and has never offered any.
This went to court eventually in the United States in a defamation trial. At that court case, Vernon Unsworth said this, “It feels very raw. I feel humiliated, ashamed, dirtied. Effectively from day one, I was given a life sentence without parole. It hurts to talk about it. I find it disgusting. I find it very hard to even read the word, never mind talk about it.” In an example of how discourse in the United States is fundamentally broken, a jury found Elon Musk not guilty of defamation. The jury agreed with Elon Musk’s argument that calling a hero a pedoguy was just a trivial taunt on a social media platform that everyone views as a world of unfiltered opinion which is protected as free speech rather than statements of fact.
Mr Musk’s court papers cast his comments as part of the rough and tumble world of Twitter which rewards and encourages emotional outbursts, and sucks in readers worldwide, but that no one takes seriously. When the court cleared Elon Musk of defamation, his response was to say that his faith in humanity had been restored.
When the sole owner of Twitter is himself a cyber bully, what does it mean for Twitter’s anti cyber-bullying efforts? We now know the answer to that question, and it’s deeply troubling. Prior to the US mid-term elections, he locked content moderators out of tools that combatted the spread of disinformation and harmful speech other than the most toxic and dangerous that could be dealt with manually. Later on, he fired out-sourced content moderators. A credible estimate suggests that around 3,000 people were let go. There are numerous reports of Twitter no longer responding to reports of disinformation or harmful speech on the platform. Twitter states that the company will “label or remove false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election or other civic process.” But when multiple examples of disinformation during the Brazilian presidential election were reported, no one was there to do anything about them.
At the same time, people have become more emboldened to use the platform for disinformation and hate speech, because they know they are unlikely to face consequences.
Within a day of Elon Musk walking into the building, internal Twitter data showed that the number of abusive tweets had increased by an alarming 50%. There was then a slight dip to 40%, and now it is difficult to obtain the data to measure the upswing. Anecdotal evidence suggests things have not returned to normal.
Elon Musk reinstated Donald Trump, who used Twitter as a weapon of disinformation to stir up a mob that nearly overturned a democratic election. To justify that reinstatement, he used a Twitter poll, despite having expressed concern in the past about the number of bots on the platform.
He then offered a general amnesty to suspended accounts, some of the worst offenders on Twitter that the company had spent years culling in order to make it a safer place.
Most of us know about the first failed attempted revamp of Twitter Blue, where impersonation ran rampant and companies had their stock values affected as a result.
Free speech absolutism does not apply when you criticise Elon Musk himself. He fired an engineer who corrected an erroneous statement on Twitter.
Elon Musk has also fired the entire Twitter Accessibility team, and already, there are consequences of that. Credible sources have reported that a screen reader user can no longer complete the Twitter sign-up process.
Some developers of the third-party apps many blind people choose to use are expressing concern that Twitter is disengaging with the developer community. An important conference for the developer community was cancelled at short notice. It is too early to say at this point whether that disengagement is simply due to the staff no longer working for the downsized company, or whether there is a philosophical move towards Twitter owning the user experience in such a way that there will be no place for third-party apps. Twitter has tried that approach before.
So, Twitter has become more of a free-for-all, more toxic, less accessible and possibly less open to alternative user experiences. The question then becomes, can’t I just go on with using Twitter until a point that it affects me directly? If I can use my third-party app that doesn’t promote toxic content, if I have my little circle of followers and we all behave reasonably, why would I want to get off the platform that’s working for me? I know it, I understand how it works, and I see no need to move.
That’s an attractive argument, particularly when you’ve spent years building up a following. I think it’s a particularly attractive argument for some disabled people, who have built up a supportive community and for whom adopting new technologies can be much harder. As I said at the beginning of this article, it’s not my place to question your motives. But I would like to share the conclusion I came to.
When I tweet, I am helping to enable the harmful content even if I myself am not posting such content. This is even before going down the rabbit warren of directly paying Twitter for additional goodies. I am enabling it because Twitter lives or dies based on advertising revenue. Advertisers are influenced by how many people are actively using the platform. While no one will care if I, as one individual with only just over 5,000 followers, don’t tweet anymore, I realised that I must try to be the change I want to see in the world. As a blind person, I have been on the receiving end of ableist speech on Twitter, with one person even telling me that people like me who were born blind should have been put to death at birth rather than expecting the world to be adapted for me. When I indicated I was blocking and reporting him, he deleted his account. That was just one incident. Now, hate speech against many at risk groups is dramatically on the increase. I want to show the same solidarity towards those victims that I would like to think others might show to me. If I don’t, I am like the two individuals in the biblical parable of the good Samaritan who made “tut-tut” noises about the plight of a stranger, but didn’t do anything directly about it.
Some respond to this line of argument by saying that people are too woke these days, and that we’re only talking about words. “Sticks and stones” and all that. My personal view is that I don’t think it is wise for us to brush it off so quickly. First, it isn’t just words. It sickened me to my stomach to learn that recently, the video of the Christchurch mosque atrocities was surfacing again on Twitter.
Second, words matter. History proves it. You only need to look at recent history to know how words can whip people into a frenzy that saw democracy under attack in the United States. And while I acknowledge that playing the Nazi card is often done in desperation when making an argument, given the increase in white supremacy on Twitter, it is relevant to point out that Hitler started gaining national popularity after the publication of a book. The journey that led to the holocaust started with hate speech. Dangerous regimes always start with words. Words matter.
In the interests of full disclosure, I do need to declare that while I have stopped engaging on Twitter completely, there are automated tools for which I am responsible that at the moment post to Twitter on other accounts. I have allowed this to continue for now because of the challenges many blind people face adopting new technologies. Immediately switching off a source of information is a big call for our community. I hope that articles like this will encourage further consideration of Twitter alternatives. Assuming there is no change of ownership of Twitter, eventually I will switch those accounts off.
So, what’s the answer? The answer is going back to the future, and embracing a decentralised process, like the ones that worked so well in the golden age of the BBS era. It’s far more democratic in that no one owns the entire network. There is room for any ideology, but no one is required to carry objectionable traffic. Like the BBS days, you can have specific communities of interest, for example the blind community, but we can all talk to each other, reserving the right for each entity not to talk to any other entity. Interestingly, Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, also realises that the Twitter experiment has failed. He intends launching Bluesky, which he says must be a decentralised social network based on an open-source protocol, funded by a foundation that does not own the protocol.
That sounds remarkably similar to a technology that already exists, ActivityPub. ActivityPub is an official open standard recommended by the Worldwide Web Consortium. It powers many great services, one of which is Mastodon. Mastodon is not perfect, but since no one person owns it, we can all help it to grow. It’s openness means that anyone is free to develop third-party apps. There are already excellent, accessible choices for all platforms.
Mastodon is not some sort of troll-free paradise. But because it is decentralised, if you pick a good instance, it is far better moderated than Twitter ever was. If you don’t pick a good instance the first time, it’s easy to migrate.
Social media has done a lot of good, particularly for minorities. But it has also done incalculable harm to our social discourse and our social fabric. It’s time for the people to take it back, and in doing so, to take our own content back. You are, of course, free to do what you think best. But I am done with being the product. I am over a faceless corporation promoting hate because it gets more engagement which makes them more money. The people surrendered control, but with services like Mastodon, we are claiming it back, and it feels fantastic.