Finding Twitter's Place in Political Discourse
by Alp Ünal AYHAN
Ever since it was founded in 2006, Twitter has become a highly influential place for discussion of news and current events. This is really easy to see. It is categorized and marketed as a news app and not a social media one. Last year its CEO, Jack Dorsey reported Twitter had 134 million daily users and almost every public figure and institution is present on Twitter. This gave Twitter unprecedented power in facilitating political debate, but is Twitter handling this power well? Let’s find out.
First of all, we need to go back to Twitter’s foundations and what it does. Twitter is obviously a micro-blogging website or a social network, but it is essentially -just like any other social media site- an advertising company. Twitter makes money selling ads to advertisers and targeting us with specific ads according to our interests. No matter what Twitter says about how their mission is “bringing people closer,” it has one simple goal: keeping the user on the platform as long as possible so that it can show them as many ads as possible. You may not realize how this is related to politics on Twitter but I will come back to this point later.
The discussion of politics on Twitter has of course brought immense benefits to the public. Activists and protesters in many countries in the Arab world used Twitter to organize and communicate in the early 2010s. This practice went on to be used in other movements and protests such as the US’ Occupy movement, UK’s London riots of 2011, and Turkey’s Gezi Park protests. Twitter is also widely used to gather attention to insurgent political campaigns and has led to victories such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset election to the US House of Representatives in 2018.
Nevertheless, there is a messy side to this as well. Disinformation runs amok on Twitter. Neo-Nazi and Alt-right groups and terrorist organizations radicalize people on the platform daily. Holders of political views like misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and white supremacy can be pushed further to the extreme on Twitter. Some white supremacists are even verified by Twitter and have huge platforms on Twitter. Certain groups like women and LGBTQ+ people are inundated with harassment, in some cases driving these people off the platform.
This has a very simple reason. Remember when I told you about what Twitter’s one simple goal was? It is exactly got to do with this goal. Twitter accomplishes this goal by effortlessly adapting itself to how our brains work. We have a huge tendency to read and accept news and information that reinforces our thoughts and beliefs. This is called confirmation bias. Our confirmation bias leads us to get information from sources we believe to be true, read news stories that we believe to be true, and like and retweet tweets we believe to be true regardless of these actually being true or not. Twitter enables this by letting its algorithms show more of what we like in our timelines and recommendations. After all, if we see more tweets similar to the tweets we already like and follow more accounts similar to the accounts we already follow we are more likely to be satisfied with what we see on Twitter and stay on it for longer, creating more ad revenue for Twitter. This can make users fall into ideological rabbit holes, sucking them into a vortex of disinformation and ideological or partisan bias.
All things considered; I would not want to be in Twitter’s place. Even though using Twitter as a public forum of ideas has had tremendous benefits to it, the platform faces a huge moral and logistical challenge. More and more users are joining Twitter each day and both the number and the range of tweets thrown at the platform are growing. Some users are crying out for stricter controls against harassment while some are claiming Twitter is already censoring them. There are genuine concerns about radicalization on the platform while some groups are telling they are being pushed out. Can, and should, Twitter monitor content and block the content it sees harmful, or should it step aside and just be the messenger? It is not easy determining what is wanted on Twitter and what is not, and lines get very blurry between say humour and hate speech, or genuine criticism of public figures and targeted harassment. Despite this, I do not think this is a problem a company valued at $6.8 billion cannot solve. It all comes down to this: does Twitter care more about its profits or a healthy political discourse?