The biggest subject of controversy on Twitter—a social-media platform built for controversy—is now Twitter itself. This controversy’s been developing over the past few years, along with concerns over the site’s content-moderation policies and transparency about their implementation. But it’s heated up since the billionaire Elon Musk bought the platform, vowing to reform it in the cause of free speech. And then it exploded after Musk recently released a trove of internal documents called the “Twitter Files”—indicating the role of internal political biases, and even external influence from the U.S. government, in decisions to restrict the visibility of certain content or suspend certain user accounts. Twitter is meanwhile an unusual social-media platform: It has hundreds of millions of users globally—tens of millions in the U.S., its biggest market. But relatively few of these users engage very much with it. And those who do, its “power users,” are disproportionately in or connected to the media industry or politics—opinion elites more than everyday people. Opinion elites may have their own concerns about Twitter, and those concerns may be legitimate, but what effect has the platform had on the broader democratic societies around it?
Aynne Kokas is the C.K. Yen Professor at the Miller Center, an associate professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, and the author of Trafficking Data: How China is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty. Kokas says that while the debate over Twitter’s history of speech moderation—and now over Musk’s own erratic treatment of journalists and chaotic policy implementations—are significant, the most urgent risks from Twitter and other social-media platforms have much more to do with data privacy. To Kokas, questions about whether and why one influential person’s Twitter account might be amplified over another are important; but when data is vulnerable, that poses a categorically greater risk to the lives of everyday people across America and around the world.
Eric Pfeiffer: How has Twitter’s influence on the U.S. and global public spheres evolved since the platform’s beginnings?
Aynne Kokas: Twitter launched in 2006—16 years ago now—as a kind of insider platform for developers and people in the tech sector to share ideas and build community. From there, the site’s key users became people in media and entertainment—particularly those interested in influencing the news and entertainment environments. Twitter has long been different from Instagram or Facebook, in the sense that it’s long been focused much more on news and generally serious content.
Today, we see people on Twitter paying a disproportionate amount of attention to arguments about changes on the platform, the platform’s successes, the platform’s demise—because of the prominent role it plays in elite conversations—and especially in discussions among media professionals. But in terms of its impact, both across the U.S. and around the world, Twitter really is dwarfed by other platforms like Facebook or Instagram, where it comes to users numbers and user engagement.
Those of us who use Twitter professionally or personally can often experience moments when we presume that everyone in the broader society understands a particular point being made on Twitter—or that most people share agreement about an issue that’s been circulating on Twitter.
But then, when you engage in real-world conversation with family or friends, it’s very clear that the public sphere of Twitter is actually very small. This isn’t to diminish its significance—or the significance of what we’re seeing the platform go through right now; Twitter is an extremely important part of the U.S. media and technology ecosystems. But the context is often lost when people in these industries are imagining the impact their conversations on Twitter have in the larger public sphere.
Another thing that’s important to note is the profound U.S. focus of Twitter. Looking at the company’s global markets, it’s really only achieved any significant penetration in the United States and in Japan. In that sense, it’s not really a global platform; there isn’t a wide range of languages, as we see on Facebook or WhatsApp, for example. This is something that often gets lost in conversations about Twitter, and conversations on Twitter, which reflect something of a parochial focus on U.S. media.
Pfeiffer: How do you see Elon Musk’s reorientation of Twitter changing its influence? What would you say we know and don’t yet know about that?
Kokas: There are a few things we definitely know.
One is that Musk has dissolved Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, the external advisory group the company put together in 2016 to address problems on the platform like hate speech, child exploitation, self-harm and suicide—and generally to help oversee digital safety and digital privacy. That one decision already represents a very significant change in the platform’s governance.
Twitter is an extremely important part of the U.S. media and technology ecosystems. But the context is often lost when people in these industries are imagining the impact their conversations on Twitter have in the larger public sphere.
The other thing we definitely know is that there have been massive layoffs at Twitter, which have led to significant challenges for the company’s engineers and also for its compliance team.
In this context, we’re already seeing the question arising in public debate about whether Twitter still has the capacity and the capabilities to conform to digital-privacy laws in the European Union, as well as in Japan. Even though the European Union isn’t Twitter’s biggest market, it’s meaningful, and it has very robust data-privacy laws; Japan is a relatively large market and also has robust data-privacy laws. What we’re seeing is an environment where Twitter will potentially be subject to major fines and serious legal action in countries outside the U.S.
This isn’t as much of a problem in the U.S., because there isn’t very robust national data-privacy legislation in America—but there are really significant global implications, which could have a long-term effect on the stability of the platform and its ability to continue functioning.
A third thing we know is that Musk is trying to shift the business model of Twitter in order to require users, and specifically power users, to help underwrite its revenue. And this is extremely interesting, because it shifts the entire business model of social media, where there’s a kind of hidden labor bargain: Users can engage with one another for free on the platform, and in exchange, they provide content for free that powers the platform’s growth.
What this means is that Musk is essentially reworking that labor bargain, making it so that users aren’t just sharing content freely in order to power the platform but paying for it. And it’s quite unclear whether and how this reframing of the platform will work.
Pfeiffer: A lot of recent controversy about Twitter has centered on allegations that the U.S. government pressured the company to censor content on the site—and now, more recently, with Musk himself suspending the accounts of a number of high-profile users for various reasons. How serious an issue do these developments represent outside of U.S. media and political circles?
Kokas: In many ways, the issues we see surrounding Twitter and TikTok aren’t too dissimilar. The main difference is that TikTok has a Chinese parent company, which gives TikTok a lot of cover—but also, because everyone knows TikTok is therefore effectively controlled by the Chinese government, it makes it a lot easier to organize common opposition to some of TikTok’s practices.
But really, the issues surrounding TikTok right now very much apply to Twitter as well. In the U.S., most Democratic and Republican legislators know of TikTok as a site for entertainment, and not necessarily as a site that guides opinion pieces in the Atlantic. That being said, more than 25 percent of people under the age of 30 in the United States get their political information from TikTok—so the common distinctions between it and Twitter aren’t really as accurate as voices of authority in the media or in federal offices might think.
In many ways, the issues we see surrounding Twitter and TikTok aren’t too dissimilar. The main difference is that TikTok has a Chinese parent company, which gives TikTok a lot of cover—but also, because everyone knows TikTok is therefore effectively controlled by the Chinese government, it makes it a lot easier to organize common opposition to some of TikTok’s practices.
Unfortunately, a disproportionate and misguided focus from U.S. coastal media outlets and the U.S. tech industry misses what’s really at stake with Twitter and other social media platforms: personal-data privacy protection. The fact is that these major communications platforms can extract the data of high-profile users in ways that aren’t secure. When that data is stolen, as it has been, it’s vulnerable to being manipulated for financial crimes, bullying, or even terrorism. These are the real political issues and risks from my standpoint—more than, for example, some person being elevated or another person being suspended from the platform for controversial reasons.
Pfeiffer: You’ve argued that corporations are just as likely as governments to leverage user data for their own gain. Where do you see the platform’s biggest risks to democratic society coming from?
Kokas: There are a couple of different ways that user data is at risk.
Poor security on a platform makes it vulnerable to hackers and illegal data exfiltration. There’s generally poor oversight of data security at Twitter, which makes user data easily subject to misuse. And the incentives for that may now even be escalating, with Musk’s focus on Twitter's financial losses and declared intention to make it profitable—both by cutting costs and by creating new revenue streams.
This makes user data even more vulnerable to third-party data brokers. Once your data is either shared or sold to a third-party broker, you have no control over where it goes. Right now on Twitter, you can see that there aren’t a lot of scruples in terms of how user data is being protected.
Then there’s the question of bankruptcy or a merger-acquisition. If Twitter were to go out of business, or be acquired by another entity, users have very little control over what happens to their data assets once someone else owns them.
Pfeiffer: Are there social media platforms you think are doing a good, or at least adequate job, where it comes to handling these issues of privacy and transparency? Could you rank the overall risk factors of Facebook, LinkedIn, TikTok, and so on?
Kokas: I don’t think we’re seeing any platforms doing a good job. Facebook, with its extremely large user base, and ad-based model, faces a really significant challenge in its governance. TikTok has a complete black box; its algorithm is a national security asset of the Chinese government that can only be exported with Chinese-government approval. A platform like LinkedIn has the advantage that its content is quite circumscribed, and it has a relatively self-policing user base—albeit a much smaller and less influential one than these other platforms. Ironically, Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council was for a time seen as an exemplar of how to think about data-protection policy.
So it’s a really tough environment right now. While many people understandably have deep reservations about governmental or any other bureaucratic overreach, if national governments and international organizations can’t establish effective standards and best practices for social-media platforms, no one will—and we’ll all remain vulnerable.