For better or worse, Twitter has emerged as the key social network for news readers and newsmakers. Despite having a base of users far smaller than platforms such as Facebook, it plays a central role in setting the media agenda, is a central force in global political narrative-setting, and a key battleground in the swirling information wars accompanying every contemporary global conflict.
Power does bring responsibility and Twitter’s executive teams have faced difficult choices over the past decade. High-profile provocateurs such as Katie Hopkins and Alex Jones were eventually banned along with the permanent suspension of Donald Trump’s account on the grounds of incitement of violence – undoubtedly Twitter’s most seismic decision, and one the platform’s new owner Elon Musk has said he will reverse.
Although opinions differ on the rights and wrongs of decisions Twitter has made over the years, it remains remarkable that the rules of – along with the shape of and access to – the digital public commons continues to be made in a boardroom. Twitter’s October 2019 ban on all political advertising was accompanied with a note from then CEO Jack Dorsey which stated political influence should be ‘earned, not bought’.
Power lies in the hands of a few
Musk has promised benevolence and, in a note to advertisers, he struck a mollifying tone – that he purchased the platform ‘to help humanity’ and a promise Twitter will not become a ‘free-for-all hellscape’. But new leadership does not mask the fundamental issue that the infrastructure underlying the public commons is in the hands of a few powerful corporations and their shareholders.
Musk’s own recent track record on stewardship of digital infrastructure is chequered as his company’s critical provision of the Starlink Internet access to Ukraine appeared to be at risk after a Ukrainian diplomat criticized his proposals for a peace process.
But scandals have dogged the companies responsible for stewarding the digital commons for decades. The Cambridge Analytica debacle, conflicts in Myanmar and Ethiopia, state and non-state disinformation campaigns around the world, and the unchecked spread of disinformation through social platforms have regularly raised the question of whether leaving sole custody of these spaces to digital giants is an experiment worth continuing with.
This corporate hegemony over digital infrastructure is now being challenged. Just hours after Musk announced his takeover with the message ‘the bird is freed’, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton warned him that ‘in Europe, the bird will fly by our rules’.
The forthcoming Digital Services Act (DSA) will subject Twitter to close scrutiny on the continent, and any failure to abide by the regulations could be costly. The DSA alone threatens fines of up to six per cent of global revenue for non-compliant platforms, and dozens of similar regimes are coming into force around the world.
The protocol or platform debate
Regulation is a major step to challenging the power of corporations over digital public platforms but it is not the only challenge. In the fractious weeks leading up to the takeover, Twitter’s lawyers succeeded in publicly revealing text messages between Musk and others relating to the bid – and the conversations with Jack Dorsey focused on much more than just the dollar amount.
Dorsey wrote that Twitter should be based on an ‘open source protocol’, and he has often spoken of his regret that Twitter was a company at all, saying it should have been a protocol, not a platform, similar to email.
In recent weeks, Dorsey’s own protocol – a project named Bluesky – took flight just as many frustrated Twitter users announced they were courting alternatives with Mastodon or Jimmy Wales’ Wikitribune being touted as alternative public spaces not beholden to boardroom decisions.
These are difficult times in Silicon Valley as share prices in digital advertising companies are falling and there is a sense the era of the omnipotent, omnipresent social media platform is entering its twilight.
Governments must look to the future with regulation which fits distributed platforms, greater participation by democracies in standards setting, and investment in a new direction for technology, perhaps via a sovereign technology fund.