Toxic Twitter set to become even more noxious?

The writer who said “future generations will look back on television as the lead in the water pipes that slowly drove the Romans mad” passed away in 2007 when social media was still in its infancy. Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) died just as Twitter (2006-) and YouTube (2007-) were born, and although Facebook (2004) was a toddler by then (Instagram and Pinterest were not born yet), social media’s profound influence on the human mind, if not on the human race, was yet to make itself apparent. In the #15years (the #hashtag itself was born in 2007) since his passing, what was once seen as a great equalizer that democratized knowledge and information sharing for the greater good has become a toxic battleground where the best and worst of human nature are locked in mortal combat, with the very nature of truth and fact called into question.
Tesla co-founder Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, among the world’s foremost social media platforms, has unveiled one of the more unforeseen consequences of social media — an increasingly polarised society. A self-proclaimed “free-speech absolutist” who says he is “against censorship that goes far beyond the law,” he has triggered concerns that such a hands-off, unregulated approach in what he describes as a “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated” will lead to greater disinformation and mendacity than what it is already awash in.
In its early days and early avatar, Twitter was seen as a chirpy, lighthearted platform where, as someone joked, you went to spend five minutes and ended up wasting thirty five. While some celebrities and businesses were quick to recognise that it offered an avenue to expand their influence, politicians cottoned on soon after. Today, the top ten most followed Twitter accounts includes six entertainers (Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Lady Gaga), a sportsman (Cristiano Ronaldo), and three politicians (Barack Obama, the currently suspended Donald Trump, and Narendra Modi). The one exceptional standout? Elon Musk, maverick billionaire entrepreneur, at #7.
But it was with the recognition by digitized masses that Twitter was a great leveler, where your 140 characters could attract attention no matter who you are, what you are, or where you are that changed the social media dynamic. Now it was not just celebrities and politicians talking down to you. You too could be talking up to them, or talking them up. Only mildly regulated, it provided an outlet for your personal, social, and political beliefs and desires, often from behind an anonymous handle that allowed one’s basest instincts to be expressed without fear of censure.
It wasn’t long before Twitter became a toxic sewage pit where not just the disenchanted came to unburden and unload, but the disingenuous came to dissemble. While there are still many positives in the way social media is being used for the good in shaping education, careers, innovation, culture and even politics, multiple studies have shown that growing overdependence on the medium impacting mental health, including engendering anxiety, loneliness, and even suicidal thoughts. At a broader level, meaningful in-person social and political activism – more recently constrained by the pandemic — has been replaced with “slactivism), with keyboard warriors in full battle mode, with no restraining hand, engage in trolling and cyberbullying.
Not just social scientists, even technology evangelists have raised red flags about social media, its positives notwithstanding. In his 2018 book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier, a former Microsoft scientist who co-founded the pioneering virtual reality company VPL Research, cites “erosion of the truth,” “destruction of empathy,” and “behavioral manipulation” among social media attributes.
Is there anything Elon Musk has said that suggests he is going to address this problem that is now universally recognized? Nope. Not really. Nada. He is after all, a billionaire, in fact the world’s richest man, and in the eyes of Washington’s political cognoscenti, who are keeping a leery eye on him, his only motive will be to make good on his investment. If this means allowing a free-for-all, so be it. The US Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has long warned about the run-away influence of Big-Tech sees it as a power grab. “Billionaires like Elon Musk play by a different set of rules than everyone else, accumulating power for their own gain,” she has warned.
The early signs are not propitious for the social media platform. If anything, Musk’s statements indicate there will be an even greater free-for-all. Within hours after clinching the deal to buy Twitter he has taken aim at some of its executives, including Vijaya Gadde, the platform’s legal head, implicitly accusing her of being censorious to a fault and banning many accounts which she had ruled did not conform to rules. The promotion of insidious disinformation was evident in one tweet that argued that Donald Trump’s Truth Social “is currently beating Twitter & TikTok” in terms of App downloads. Well duh. It doesn’t take a SpaceX scientist to understand a new app would have a greater number of downloads than one that has already been downloaded millions of times.