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Time for braces and belts – how we strengthen public discourse together

Svensk version: Dags för hängslen och livrem – så stärker vi opinionsbildningen i samhället

What would our democracy look like without journalism? There is no doubt that journalism has a crucial role in democracy. Journalism has an important role in holding power accountable in society. Journalists and media outlets are those who usually provide us the information we need to make well-informed decisions. And in a digital age, where there is an abundance of information and news sources, it is more important than ever to ensure that journalism is reliable and impartial.

In just a few decades we have seen how technology have made it easier to spread false information. The development has also meant that public discourse can be more easily exposed to malign information. This development puts us at the risk of ending up in a dangerous downward spiral where people begin to lose trust in the media and journalism. This, in turn, may threaten and challenge democracy. Therefore, it is important that journalism have good conditions to work on, that it has funding that guarantees its independence and that there is a diversity of perspectives represented. It is also central in a time where more and more people are turning to social media to get their information that we in society have access to strong and independent journalism.

The big tech companies’ platforms affect journalism in many ways. Out of these, Twitter has come to be a central arena, as it has come to play a special role in global public discourse. Even if Twitter is not the social media platform with the largest number of users, there is a strong over-representation on Twitter of many of those whose profession involves relating in different ways to society’s public discourse. Here are journalists, politicians, researchers, lobbyists, marketers and communicators. As a social media, Twitter is therefore a special place, which needs to be examined and understood in depth. Public discourse is central to democracy, and it therefore becomes natural that the digital place where public discourse takes place matters.

So how does Twitter in particular, and social media in general, play a role in public discourse? Platforms have often been portrayed as some kind of neutral technology on which people express their opinions and share content, but this does not ring true with reality. Design matters, and how these platforms are designed and for what purposes they are created will determine the way in which we will interact on them. To give a few examples, the platforms’ algorithms affect what information is and is not visible to users. Whoever has the power over the platform also has the power over the algorithm. The owner also has the power to decide who gets to be there and who doesn’t, and can use algorithms to ensure that some voices are heard more than others.

Twitter, one of the world’s most influential social media companies, has recently found itself in many similtaneous storms. The functioning of twitter, how its managed and operated have profound consequences for the platform’s use, credibility and, ultimately, its function as an arena for public discourse.

Most media but also public actors, corporate communication departments, PR agencies and politicians consider Twitter important because it is a place people know they can turn to when the world is hit by big news. It has been possible to retrieve information from verified accounts that previously in the vast majority of cases were able to ensure that the source is who it claims to be. And while Twitter has always been a private American backyard, the platform has come to be perceived as the closest to a digital public space the world has seen. In a short time, a lot has happened in and around Twitter. With recent developments, it has become increasingly apparent that it is difficult to continue to pretend that nothing has happened, and continue to live in the delusion of the functioning of this platform.

Since Elon Musk bought Twitter, he has fired nearly two-thirds of its staff, including the teams responsible for moderating harassment and misinformation on the network. He has restored the accounts of well-known right-wing populists while suspending the accounts of a number of journalists, for reasons that cannot be understood other than that he did not like what they wrote. He has also made internal Twitter documents available to a number of other journalists and political commentators to show that former management of the company allegedly cooperated with the FBI to ban conservative accounts, and to dampen the reach of views about COVID and more. Elon Musk’s Twitter has in a short time come to take on other expressions, which affects how one should relate to the platform. Elon Musk’s actions are agenda-driven and interest-driven, capricious and unpredictable. It is not a good basis to put one’s faith in when it comes to harbouring a society’s digital public discourse.

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has also been accompanied by an increase in threats, hate and harassment against religious and ethnic minorities, among others, in some of the company’s biggest markets outside the US. It is now starting to create real problems in these places. In addition to all the layoffs, Elon Musk has also terminated the contracts of thousands of contract employees. Many of these were people working with content management and moderation, to limit racism, sexism, threats and other problematic use. The cuts that have been made have hit actors outside the US much harder, despite the fact that more than 75% of the company’s 280 million daily users are outside the US. This means that in practice today there is a lack of moderators with an understanding of local languages and cultural references, or operate in environments where the political situation is chaotic or violent. Because of this, the amount of problematic use has increased significantly on Twitter. In the company’s second largest market, Japan, where almost 59 million users are estimated to use the site, this is clearly visible. There have also been problems in India (nearly 24 million users) and Brazil (nearly 20 million), the third and fourth largest markets, according to current and former employees and researchers. Elon Musk has laid off almost all staff in Brazil, leading to an increase in disinformation that may have contributed to the development of the attacks on the country’s government buildings some time ago. Even in the more moderated English-speaking world, the tone on Twitter has hardened. Twitter is in the process of laying off even more employees in Australia. Entire teams that monitored Asian countries, including Japan, are now completely or partially gone. So after the cuts, there are now fewer people monitoring the site and a lot of structural capacity and expertise has been lost, leading to an increase in hate, racism and misinformation. In the long run, this risks further serious consequences not only on the site but also in the physical world beyond it, where it can lead to increased intolerance and violence. It is clear that Elon Musk should take responsibility for what happens on the site and ensure that there are enough resources to monitor and counter hate and misinformation. However, there is something that does not seem to be happening.

As Michael Grynbaum wrote in the New York Times last month, until now, Twitter “has had a unique role in the news and information ecosystem,” with journalists flocking there “to share their reporting, develop relationships with sources, and debate issues of the day .”

But at the same time, when Elon Musk himself describes the development of Twitter as “a plane moving towards the ground at high speed with the engines on fire and the controls not working”, questions need to be asked about the future of journalism and public discourse on Twitter. Although Twitter has not ceased to function, the platform is undergoing major change and in a way that is problematic for journalism and civic conversation. With the development that is now visible on the platform, in my opinion it is far from obvious to continue to operate there. For my part, I have kept the account, so that it will not be taken over by anyone, but I have chosen to leave as a user. At the same time, it is one thing to distance yourself from a platform, and another to think about what is a reasonable next step, and which would benefit public discourse and journalism.

Actors who derive their livelihood from the various perspectives of public discourse have come to see Twitter as such an important place that you have to cling to it, even if the place under Elon Musk’s leadership has changed in a short time in extremely problematic ways. It one thing to remain on Twitter in order to possibly return there in the event the platform changes for the better. But blindly trusting that this is what will happen, and not looking at other options, is very risky. And even in the scenario where Twitter survives, there remains a great vulnerability for a society’s public discourse to fully allow a single actor to dictate its structural conditions.

Dan Gillmor, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, suggests that journalists should avoid platforms like Twitter altogether, and argues that Musk has shown why. He believes that Elon Musk shows a clear contempt for freedom of expression in general and journalism in particular, with the way he manages Twitter. Furthermore, he believes that it is foolhardy for anyone to rely on centralized platforms to create and distribute important information.” Gillmor further says that journalists and other information providers “should move to decentralized systems where they have control over what they say.”

An additional factor that has come to complicate and make the use of Twitter more difficult for both journalists and other actors who have a more professional approach to the platform is that Twitter is now increasingly limiting the ability to see or extract data from the platform, as well as shutting down companies that build third-party clients. According to internal messages in Slack on Twitter, it appears that the suspension of third-party clients recently was a deliberate move. The reason for the suspension is unknown today but it is speculated that it may be because these third-party clients do not help generate revenue from ads. This could hurt Elon Musk’s efforts to stem a steep decline in ad revenue over the past two months. For many professional Twitter users, these third-party clients and even APIs are essential tools, and their absence is yet another reason to identify other possible paths forward.

One of the bigger risks in the medium and longer term is Twitter’s finances. Musk’s eagerness to save money and limit costs by drastically reducing the number of employees and contractors has had tangible consequences on Twitter’s function, credibility and relevance. It also affects advertisers on the platform. Ads are Twitter’s primary source of revenue, which is why this is particularly problematic for them. The cuts have limited Twitter’s security infrastructure and created countless problems for advertisers, who have therefore chosen to leave the platform on a large scale. Multiple reports indicate that the company has reportedly lost business from roughly half of their top hundred ad customers, and it has missed US ad revenue expectations by up to eighty percent. Without advertising revenue, it is not possible to finance Twitter. The value of the company has fallen significantly since Elon Musk’s purchase. From an economic perspective, it is very uncertain what Twitter will even be worth in a few years or so.

Twitter is thus in crisis. The platform has been and is for many journalists and actors with an interest in public discourse an important news source and communication channel. But since Elon Musk took over the company in October, it has become increasingly clear that Twitter is no longer the platform it once was.

For journalists, media and many others, there are many different arguments for why one should consider reassessing one’s presence on the platform. If we start with business arguments, over time it has become increasingly difficult for media to reach their target groups on Twitter. With increased competition from other social media and an increase in fake accounts and bots, it becomes difficult for users to find relevant content and to ensure credibility and quality. From a democratic perspective, there are several challenges with Twitter. With Elon Musk’s entry, public discourse and journalism have come to endure an increased degree of fake accounts, misinformation and malign influence by bad actors. It damages the democratic dialogue and creates an unvarnished and distorted picture of reality. Twitter has never been a representative arena for society at large, but with recent developments it is downright problematic. Furthermore, challenges arise for the democratic dialogue and public discourse due to the amount of hatred and threats. The platform has slow or non-existent response times to reports of harassment and threats, and it is difficult for users to protect themselves from this. From a journalistic perspective, it is also important that media and journalists are in digital spaces in which they can reach their readers and get a meaningful exchange. With the development we have come to see on Twitter, it has proven to be a platform where it is increasingly difficult to keep the conversation on a constructive level and where it is difficult to find relevant information. The platform creates obvious business, democratic and journalistic problems.

So what can be done in this situation? Journalists, media and others engaged in public discourse should consider alternatives. It’s about having braces and a waist belt, in a situation where it’s hard to predict what’s to come. The well-being of public discourse is shaped in many ways by the conditions actors have to take part in it and express themselves. The risk of Twitter ceasing to contribute to the digital public dialogue is imminent and therefore now is the time to look at the alternatives and not put all your eggs in one basket. So even if you as a journalist or media outlet choose to remain on Twitter, after all, you should at the same time explore the alternatives.

Unlike just a few years ago, it is no longer obvious which of the existing social media is suitable as a replacement for Twitter. Perhaps that is also one of the reasons why it is difficult to make a move. Just a few years ago, Facebook was such a public arena that it still offered some sort of alternative. Today, the situation looks different, and different people choose to be in different places depending on generation, interests and commitment. The fastest growing social media, such as TikTok, are also markedly different from previous social media in that they do not have the same characteristics. They are not suitable for public discourse but offer more of entertainment. They are more like digital fairgrounds than digital squares.

Perhaps it is also for these reasons that other alternatives than the present alternatives have emerged. Among these, Mastodon is today one of the most promising digital services. There are several reasons for this.

Mastodon is a decentralized, open source social media service built on the ActivityPub protocol. It is a social media service similar to Twitter, but built on a decentralized network of servers that communicate with each other. Mastodon is part of Fediverse, a collective name for all services and servers that use the ActivityPub protocol to communicate with each other. Services like Mastodon, Pleroma, PixelFed and Peertube are all part of Fediverse. ActivityPub is a protocol for decentralized communication between different online services and is used by these services. It enables these different services to communicate with each other and share content, even if they are built on different technologies. And have different function. It’s a bit like if Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and Youtube would be open and allow easy sharing and access of information between these services.

Fediverse differs from traditional platforms such as Twitter in that it is decentralized, meaning there is no central actor that can control or censor content. Instead, there are many different servers that communicate with each other, making it harder for governments, tech companies and other actors to block or censor content. Fediverse is also open source and promotes engagement and interaction between users. This means that in many ways it can better meet the conditions a multifaceted, complex and dynamic opinion formation needs.

An environment like Mastodon is thus more similar to the environment for public discourse we find in our physical environment. It is an environment with a high degree of diversity. Because there are many different servers, or instances, as it is often called, in Fediverse, there are many different kinds of communities with different focuses and interests. It can make it easier for journalists and others engaging in public discourse to reach new audience groups or find actors with special interests or skills. Unlike today’s platforms, they are also digital environments that are based on open source, which makes it easier for users to review and understand how the services work and even build on top of them. Mastodon and other Fediverse services are also built to foster engagement and interaction between users, unlike today’s commercial platforms whose design is primarily aimed at selling ads. It is a significant difference, which has many consequences. One of them is that it is likely to make it easier for journalists and other actors to engage with their audience and get feedback.

Thus, there are many reasons to consider looking at other alternative places to develop public discourse than on Twitter. There are also good reasons to consider Fediverse and Mastodon. Therefore, I believe that it is important for individual journalists as well as the media and other actors in society’s public discourse to establish a presence there. It may involve obtaining an account on an instance for the individual journalist, researcher or politician. But it can also be about, as a media house, political party, non-profit association, university or library, setting up your own instance and exploring the possibilities. Several actors have already done so today, such as MIT, the EU Commission, Medium, Vivaldi and soon Mozilla. By establishing oneself in this environment, which is based on completely different technical conditions, a possibility arises for a distributed and federated media landscape in Sweden and internationally, which is more robust and sustainable and not in the hands of an individual entrepreneur’s whims, ideas or ideas. It opens up new forms of digital interactions and conversations, and has the potential to develop a digital public space that more closely resembles what we see in the physical world.

Our democracy requires good public discourse, and in our digital age it also needs to take place digitally. To let it perish, distort or wither because of the choices of individual entrepreneurs or platforms would be irresponsible. Now is the time for media, political parties, universities and civil society actors, for companies and public education, to together stop passively letting individual tech companies shape the future, but instead contribute to the development of society, not only in our physical world but also in the digital one.

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