On March 21, 2006, the world of the internet and social media changed forever with the founding of Twitter.
“Just setting up my Twitter”, was the first tweet tweeted by one of Twitter’s founders, Jack Dorsey. Twitter started out small, with an average of 20,000 tweets per day in 2007. But the site quickly gained traction, with an average of 3.5 million tweets per day just three years later in 2010. The numbers have only increased, with the boom climbing to 500 million tweets per day this year, and becoming the 9th most visited website in the world.
Twitter’s popularity grew due to its ability to connect and amplify the voices of its users more than other social media platforms. Twitter promoted an environment of open discussion, whether it’s news, politics, or entertainment. Major social movements such as #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter gained much traction on Twitter, which is today one of the world’s social media giants.
Over time, Twitter began enforcing community guidelines to maintain trust and safety. This included moderation rules, warnings when content has proven to be false and take downs of content deemed harful.
However, all of these safeguards have changed since Elon Musk made the decision to purchase Twitter for $44 billion on Oct. 27 for $44 billion.
. Musk, who is now the world’s richest man, said the main reason for the purchase was “to try to help humanity”, because “[f]ree speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
Musk, who has deemed himself a “free-speech absolutist,” has said that his main goal is to allow free speech on Twitter.
Unfortunately for Twitter users, Musk’s new hands-off approach to content moderation has led to a rise of posts with content that is racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, and what some deem to be hate speech.
“Hate-speech shouldn’t be allowed on any platform,” said an Akins senior who responded to an online survey by The Eagle’s Eye. survey. “If your idea of freedom is oppressing others, you’re not a good person. True freedom is freedom for all from hate and terror.”
Tufts University’s Digital Planet group, which is dedicated to understanding the impact of digital innovations on the world, researched and found that hate speech was more rampant during the period of Musk’s ownership of Twitter than the few months that came before it. The research studied 20 popular tweets that contained hateful anti-LBTGQ+, racist, or anti-Semitic keywords from March 1 to Nov. 13. The researchers found that only 1 of the tweets was actually hateful, with the rest just quoting someone else or discussing the subject in a non-hateful way.
However, the same research group found that hate speech increased significantly when being managed by Musk. In the span of a few weeks after Musk’s acquisition, the research group found that seven of the top 20 posts associated with anti-LGBTQ+ or anti-semitic posts were now done with hateful intent. Whether or not Musk intended for hate speech to become more widespread, it has occured as a result of allowing free speech, and many advertisers weren’t comfortable with this.
It’s understandable why advertisers would like to cut ties with Twitter in this current environment. Being advertised on a website that allows hate speech isn’t very appealing when companies prefer to maintain a positive public image and reputation. This makes social media with free speech very difficult to make profitable, if at all.
4Chan, a social media website that proclaims that it promotes freedom of speech, has a reputation for being the dark side of social media and has over 8 million visitors per month. As one might assume, however, 4Chan is worth much less money than other platforms. The highest offer for the website made was $45,000, according to a New York Times interview with Christopher Poole, the founder of 4Chan.
If Musk wants to turn Twitter into a platform for free speech absolutists like him, a free speech website, he will likely struggle to attract and keep the type of big money advertisers that have supported it in the past.
However, Musk has shown difficulty attempting to make some profit from Twitter. Specifically, by putting the blue verification check mark up for sale for $8. Before Musk’s purchase of Twitter, the blue verification check next to a profile’s username was meant to confirm the authenticity of the account, usually an official account of a famous company or celebrity. Before Musk, verification was given for free as long as the user applied for it, the user had a large number of followers, and the user was really who they said they were.
Now, however, all those requirements and processes for a verification check mark have been replaced. As of right now, a verification checkmark is accessible to anyone, all it costs is $8 a month.
Musk went ahead and offered the blue check marks to paying subscribers of the “Twitter Blue” service. Accounts were not required to be authentic or real to receive a blue check mark. All users had to do was change their usernames and pay $8 dollars. What ensued was pure social media chaos.
On November 10th, a parody account of Eli Lilly and Company, an American Pharmaceutical company, with a verification check tweeted out “We are excited to announce insulin is free now”. This tweet immediately ensued chaos, causing the pharmaceutical company to lose $15 billion in stock prices.
This isn’t the only instance of the new verification check mark causing disarray. The very same day the Eli Lilly and Company parody account made the misleading tweet, a fake verified Pepsi account tweeted “Coke is better.” A parody account of Chiquita, a major producer and distributor of bananas and other produce, made the tweet “We’ve just overthrown the government of Brazil.” Another parody account of the fruit company tweeted “We apologize to those who have been served a misleading message from a fake Chiquita account. We have not overthrown a government since 1954.”
The explosion in so-called parody accounts was met with a huge range of responses. Many users, especially large stakeholders of these companies or celebrities being impersonated, feel it is dangerous to provide any user online the ability to pose as a powerful person, organization, or company. This can cause much chaos and misinformation to spread much more easily, and cause much harm to people or groups being imitated, as well as their followers being misled with fabricated posts.
“Apparently, due to Twitter’s lax verification practices and apparent need for cash, anyone could pay $8.00 and impersonate someone on your platform,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, after a Washington Post reporter imitated the politician with a checkmark on Twitter. “Selling the truth is dangerous and unacceptable.”
However, many have found entertainment and believe the paid check marks have been a humorous and clever way to point out flaws in institutions present in our society. The main example of this would be with the aforementioned Ely and Lilly Company parody tweet, which poked fun at the pharmaceutical industry’s questionable practices of selling insulin for nearly 20 times the amount of money needed to produce it.
The Chiquita tweet also pokes fun at the banana company, which has a dark history of funding and bribing military groups in South American countries to minimize the cost of producing bananas, such as in 2007 when the company paid $ 1.7 million to a far-right paramilitary group in Colombia responsible for killing thousands.
However, some Akins students have said that while it might be funny to see these satirical posts, they disagree that they should be allowed to happen on a regular basis on Twitter.
“I disagree with his whole total free speech thing, as it’s a blatant dog whistle for hate speech.”, an Akins senior who responded to The Eagle’s Eye survey said. “However, I do think the people on there are funny as hell when they pose as celebrities and such. The fact that a few trolls can destroy the stocks of private healthcare corporations by tweeting that insulin is free shows how truly fragile our healthcare system is in America.”
Soon after the fake accounts were rampant on Twitter Musk disabled the ability to buy blue verification check marks and attempted to stop the spread of any satirical accounts. Musk has since stated any parody account not labeled “Parody” will be permanently suspended. This action does prevent fake accounts from being made, as they now have to specify their authenticity, but has also been met with much criticism from satirical Twitter accounts, even those that existed before Musk’s acquisition.
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True freedom is freedom for all from hate and terror.
The question of whether parody accounts on social media must specify if they’re fake or not has been brought up in a current Supreme Court case of an Ohioan Man who was put on trial for parodying his local police on Facebook. Famous news parody sites, like The Onion and Babylon Bee, chimed in the case, defending the man by arguing satire can sometimes only work and get a laugh if the comedian starts the joke by sounding serious, thus specifying that a social media account is satire can take much of the comedic punch away.
Whether one believes this requirement will help prevent the spread of misinformation or goes against Musk’s fundamental belief that Twitter should protect free speech, it has no doubt raised much criticism about his management of the company as its new CEO.
Musk’s new policies and handling of the spread of misinformation on the site have been intensely questioned by many users and critics.
A few days after the billionaire had formally purchased the social media, he replied to a tweet made by the former first lady Hillary Clinton, about conspiracy theories surrounding the recent break-in and attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives.
“There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk posted on his Twitter account , along with a link to an article from the Santa Monica Observer, claiming that the attacker was a male prostitute hired by Pelosi. However, the same site has had a history of spreading unfounded conspiracy theories, such as claiming Hillary Clinton died and was replaced by a body double.
The theory had almost no evidence to support it, and officials have already confirmed that the assaulter had expressed radical right-wing views online, such as being a Holocaust denier. Musk deleted his tweet shortly afterward, but the damage had already been done, with many of his supporters believing the theory as fact.
For many users, Twitter is often a common source to receive news and important information. According to a survey conducted by The Eagle’s Eye, 37.5% of respondents said they used the website for news-related content. However, this type of political misinformation being spread puts many of these users in danger of either believing the fake news or leaving Twitter because of it.
The platform has removed safeguards against spreading other types of misinformation, specifically those related to Covid-19. The company had previously flagged misleading or misinformed posts regarding the virus, sometimes deleting them entirely, when the virus first started spreading in March 2019. However, the guidelines stated that the site would no longer be enforcing Covid-19 misinformation rules starting Nov. 23.
“Musk buying Twitter wasn’t a major thing that evoked a reaction from me. It was the changes that I reacted to,” an anonymous staff member of Akins said, when asked about their reactions to Musk’s purchase. “Twitter just isn’t a platform I can place any trust in anymore.”
Regardless, if Musk has plans to restrict or promote the misinformation that could run rampant on the platform, it seems there aren’t many employees left to moderate it.
Soon after Musk bought the social media, he laid off 7,500 of Twitter’s full-time employees on Nov. 4, and even fired an employee who criticized him publicly on the platform, which only raised more eyebrows from many if he is truly using Twitter to support free speech.
After this initial round of firings, Musk sent an email to the remaining employees, giving them the choice between “being extremely hardcore” at the company working “long hours at high intensity” or to leave with a severance package. The email led to an estimated 1,200 employee resignations shortly after, according to The Guardian.
This has led to Musk asking for help from any remaining employees “who actually writes software,” in another series of emails to employees. It appears that Musk is having difficulty running Twitter with fewer employees, and it will only become more difficult.
“It’s like putting a car on the road, hitting the accelerator, and the driver jumps out,” Richard Forno, assistant director of the Center for Cybersecurity at the University of Maryland said to The New York Times. “How far is it going to go before it crashes?”
It may be too soon to know the outcome of Musk’s transformation of Twitter; however, there is still plenty of reason for concern. On Dec. 12, Musk dissolved Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, the advisory group of around 100 independent civil, human rights and other organizations that the company formed in 2016 to address hate speech, child exploitation, suicide, self-harm and other problems on the platform, according to an NPR article.
The council had been scheduled to meet with Twitter representatives Monday night. But Twitter informed the group via email that it was disbanding it shortly before the meeting was to take place. According to anonymous sources quoted by the Associated Press, the email said Twitter was “reevaluating how best to bring external insights” and the council is “not the best structure to do this.”
According to the Washington Post, many members of the council were already on the verge of resigning, said Larry Magid, chief executive of ConnectSafely, a Silicon Valley nonprofit that advises consumers about children’s internet use.
“By disbanding it, we got fired instead of quit,” he said. “Elon doesn’t want criticism, and he really doesn’t want the kind of advice he would very likely get from a safety advisory council, which would likely tell him to rehire some of the staff he got rid of, and reinstate some of the rules he got rid of, and turn the company in another direction from where he is turning it.”
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