Elon, Twitter, and the future of social media
While I don’t think the guy who runs racist factories is necessarily the right person to buy a prominent social media company in order to “save democracy”, he’s right about one thing: if Twitter is to truly be a public square, the algorithm needs to be open sourced.
Over the years, there’s been a lot of chat about algorithms: how they’re designed to keep you on social media sites by filtering your feed for the kind of content that you want to see and interact with, rather than just showing you the reverse chronological list of all content you’ve subscribed to. It’s the mechanism that causes Facebook Pages to have to pay to have their posts actually reach their communities; it creates filter bubbles; it exacerbates power laws that help people with large communities reach even more people.
When we’re talking about algorithms on Twitter, though, the subtext is around the work the company has done on harassment and abuse. Accounts that regularly post hate speech are kicked off the platform, keeping vulnerable communities safer and making interactions on the site less toxic for everybody. To some (hint: their demographics are usually not the ones targeted for violence by these kinds of accounts) these are simply “differences of opinion”. That’s the kind of content that would be reinstated in a world with an open source algorithm. Don’t want nationalists on your feed? Use an algorithm that hides them.
And sure, maybe. The web as a whole works a bit like that, after all: if you’re not a white nationalist, don’t visit Stormfront or Truth Social. Those sites exist as niche underbellies where disaffected racists can spew their hatred without being disturbed by the rest of us. When that content crosses the line into illegality — at least, the content that’s observable, which is likely the tip of the iceberg — theoretically the police get involved. ( The police themselves have a white supremacy problem, hence the theoretically.)
But speech isn’t simply speech. Speech has the power to organize, to rally, to build movements and cause both great positive change and great harm. Free speech maximalists like to quote Brandeis’s principle that the way to counter harmful…