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It’s time for an open public discourse

The text below is my translated version of an op ed I wrote in Swedish, and which was published today in the major Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

Recently, Twitter, perhaps the most important place for digital public discourse in Sweden, ceased to exist. Instead it was replaced by X, a platform with completely different interests and ambitions. The change affects Sweden’s public discourse in a very negative way. To safeguard a democratic dialogue, the public sector, civil society, companies, media and opinion makers need to leave X and instead develop digital conversations based on openness and with society’s and the citizens interests first.

For a decade, Twitter has played a central role in Swedish public discourse. Even though Twitter has never been the largest platform, it has been among the most important. It was on Twitter that digital public discourse largely took place. The number of tweets that have given rise to headlines in newspapers or shifts in politics is innumerable.

Now Twitter no longer exists. In October 2022, entrepreneur Elon Musk made headlines when he bought the company for a staggering $44 billion and took control of the platform. After the purchase, he laid off 80% of the company’s employees and dismantled most of the work on moderating content that counters threats and hate. He also allowed many suspended users, such as Russian state actors and people on the far right, to regain their accounts. An immediate consequence was that the amount of disinformation, propaganda, threats and hate immediately increased. Musk has also deteriorated the conditions for how media and researchers can use the platform. This makes the ability to gain insight and understanding into what is happening on the platform almost non-existent. Musk has also closed accounts of journalists who have expressed themselves critically towards him or his companies. He has dismantled the previous verification system and replaced it with a new one where you pay for verification. The verification is now based on economic rather than social capital. The algorithm has been changed so that users’ posts spread more if they pay. Now Musk has completed his dismantling of Twitter by renaming the service X, a dark shadow of its former self.

Twitter has always had problems and challenges, not least when it comes to threats and hate. Yet the platform has come to play an important role in society. It has been almost a necessity to be there in order to be part of society’s public discourse and political conversation. At the same time, Twitter has not been the only platform. Over time, it has become normalised that everyone is expected to have accounts on social media in order to be able to access critical societal information. Public actors who share important information on closed platforms lock in residents on platforms they may not want, or should have to be on. Recently, we have seen the Prime Minister of Sweden share security policy information and referred to Instagram. Schools share information in a Facebook group, the university shares new discoveries on X, or the cultural agency that informs about policy on TikTok. The examples are many of how we have come to regard social media as a social infrastructure. This condition is vulnerable for society.

What is at stake is the digital public space. The democratic dialogue is disadvantaged when it is conducted in forums that promote the creation of conflict and attention-seeking behavior in order to maximize the number of views. Instead, we must create digital spaces characterised by openness and where the public discourse can be strengthened and developed. To develop these spaces we all need to contribute.

It is possible to create such a positive change, it is not a naively optimistic vision of the future. Because it is already happening, just not here in Sweden. Germany has come a long way and both authorities, universities and newspapers use open social media. They own their own channels while through open standards they can communicate with other platforms. This setup where the organization owns its own channel also seems to protect against external influence from foreign powers. Many actors, from EU institutions and the Dutch government to the BBC in the UK and municipalities and organizations in civil society in several countries have already chosen to establish themselves with official accounts in the open alternatives.

With open social media platforms like Mastodon, the photo sharing service Pixelfed and the video service PeerTube, the user can choose how to participate and own their own data and profile. The user can also choose to take their data with them and switch platforms if they prefer. For media, political parties, opinion makers and others, there is the possibility of owning their own digital infrastructure. The state can, by using these services, own and operate their own channels. They are not tied to individual private companies or other countries’ interests, but can communicate undisturbed in a crisis. The possibilities are therefore many. To strengthen the democratic dialogue in a digital age, we need to strengthen our public discourse by:

  1. Leaving the platform X.
  2. Establish presence and develop ability to communicate on open social media, such as Mastodon, Pixelfed and PeerTube.
  3. Prioritize the use of open standards and protocols such as ActivityPub and RSS for public actors, media, civil society and companies.

Sweden aims to be best in the world at harnessing the opportunities of digitialization. At the same time, the OECD points out that we are now almost last. Maybe this can be a catalyst for a more curious, civic and community centered and sustainable development of society’s digital public spaces?

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