Let’s kick off by making one thing perfectly clear: I don’t give a monkey’s who owns Twitter. I have more immediate things on my mind, like how to pay my utility bills (stressful), getting a plumber round to unblock the kitchen sink (frustrating) and persuading some of OutNewsGlobal’s writers to deliver their copy on time (impossible).
However, many of the usual virtue-signalling suspects have – somewhat ironically – taken to Twitter to express their disquiet at the social media giant joining the empire of richest-man-in-the-world Elon Musk, who has paid a hard-to-get-your-head-around $44 billion (£35 billion) for the company.
Musk’s public pronouncements are often oblique and contradictory, but it seems clear that he intends to loosen the platform’s moderating procedures in the name of free speech. In other words, it looks likely that tweeting stuff that was hitherto banned will now be permitted, with the probable outcome that cyberspace’s go-to receptacle of hatred, vitriol and bigotry will become even more hateful, vitriolic and bigoted.
All of which leads us to the myth of free speech which Musk, among others, seems to believe means that you can say what you want, when you want, in the name of individual liberty. Now, laws around free speech and its bedfellow – freedom of the press – differ from country to country, but in the UK free speech comes with a host of caveats.
Brits cannot knowingly tell lies about someone: if you say it, that’s slander, and if you write or broadcast it, it’s libel. Similarly, if I were to advocate taking to the streets to attack gay people, that’s incitement to violence, and that’s not allowed either. Fortunately, whatever Musk decides to do with Twitter, none of this will change: even Twitter cannot supersede the law of the land so, even if I have Musk’s blessing to tweet that the totally fictitious Arthur J Boggins is a paedo, Mr Boggins remains entitled to sue me under English law. That said, with bots, anonymous accounts and unnamed trolls difficult to track down, some might say that the law is ill-equipped for tackling the sort of online abuse for which Twitter is famous. Put simply, if you can’t find the perpetrator, you can’t stop them doing what they’re doing.
One thing is clear, Twitter – which, when it started, was actually quite good fun (remember that?) – will only get worse, and while there is a perverse part of me that enjoys seeing thin-skinned snowflakes being “triggered” because someone said words they don’t like – the modern equivalent of a delicate Victorian lady collapsing in a hyperventilating heap on to the chaise longue because somebody mentioned a penis – there is no doubt that Twitter’s incessant barrage of negativity can be wearing.
But it’s not only Musk’s libertarianism which will plunge Twitter even further down the poisoned well; far more concerning is the principle of “negativity bias” which, effectively, means that social media algorithms promote the bad stuff above the good, fluffy stuff (apart from cats, apparently, but that’s for another day).
A internal Facebook study, which was leaked last year, explains how negativity bias works and, to be fair to social media companies, it seems to be an unintended consequence of how their algorithms and AI operate rather than part of an evil grand plan. Here’s what happens:
If you don’t scroll, the social media companies don’t make money. They want you to look at as much content as possible, allowing them to show you more ads and to find out the kind of things you like to see so they can show you more of it. And, critically, they don’t just register what you look at, they notice how long you look at it for.
Human nature means that we are drawn to the negative more than we are to the positive: this may have something to do with evolution, where humans needed to be alert to danger, so were more likely to focus on a man-eating bear than on children playing on the riverbank. This is why drivers will inevitably slow down to rubberneck an accident (don’t lie, we all do it) but will barely notice a family sitting on the grass verge having a picnic.
The same applies to online activity: as we scroll through our feed, negativity bias tells us that we will likely spend more time looking at the bad stuff. This will be noted by the AI behind the platform, which will then conclude that that’s the sort of content you like to see, so it will serve more of it, promoting it to the top of your feed, leading you to believe that the world is an even darker and more hateful place than it actually is.
This has real-world consequences. When three black footballers missed penalties for England in an important match last year, the vast majority of football fans were disappointed to go out of the competition but certainly did not believe that the failure to dispatch their spot-kicks had anything to do with the players’ ethnicities. Nonetheless, with boring predictability, members of the tiny minority of meathead fans did believe that the ability to place a ball in a net from a distance of 12 yards was somehow connected to the amount of pigment in someone’s skin (yeah, I know, thick as mince) and they broadcast their opinions in the most vile terms on social media. Social media’s algorithms, recognising the principle of negativity bias, promoted this hateful content to the top of people’s feeds, leading us to believe that these ghastly views were held by the majority, rather than by a small, nasty but very vociferous minority.
So, what are we going to do about Twitter? First, let us acknowledge that Musk’s notion of free speech will likely ramp up the nasty stuff. Second, let’s not forget the principle of negativity bias and remember that it is the algorithm making us believe that the world is full of anger and hatred. Most people are actually quite nice.
Finally, we should not confuse what happens on Twitter with the real world. In the UK, there are 20 million Twitter users, which means there are 50 million people who can’t be arsed with it. Of those 20 million UK accounts, some are companies, and many accounts belong to people who seldom use the platform.
So let’s not get too upset about what an obscenely rich man does with his money. I don’t know about you but I’ve got other things to worry about and, anyway, I’m not sure I can be bothered with angry people shouting trite slogans at each other in cyberspace. Maybe Musk’s takeover is a good thing in as much as it may prompt us to reevaluate the time we waste online and persuade us to put down our phones, go outside and smell the roses.