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The power and perils of Twitter

The platform gives voice to powerful populists; Nigeria’s case shows pushing back is hard

[Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared in the latest edition of The Fix’s weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter to get the latest media news, opportunities, and insights every Monday.]

Over the last year, Twitter has unveiled more products than in the past several years combined — from audio platform Twitter Spaces to its new subscription product Twitter Blue.

Just last Wednesday, the company announced they are rolling out Birdwatch, its new fact-checking product. As TechCrunch describes it, Birdwatch “taps a network of engaged tweeters to add notes to misleading tweets.” Those who are participating in the program will be able to view and rate notes, with a general goal to fight misinformation.

Misinformation is a huge problem for the platform and for society, but there’s arguably a bigger one, one inherently rooted in Twitter’s core product. Namely, it’s how the platform amplifies some of the worst aspects of human nature, such as populism.

Consider the case of Donald Trump, Twitter’s once-most popular populist, who has been banned since January. Last week, he decided to shut down his blog “From The Desk of Donald J. Trump” because no one was reading it. As journalist Casey Newton observed, “Trump’s rapid retreat from blogging highlights the degree to which he depended on free reach — not free speech — to advance his malign agenda.”

Trump, of course, is banned from Twitter indefinitely, showing that the platform understands the problem and is working to mitigate it. However, this work is complicated – for various reasons, but not least because in many other countries you can’t just censor the president and not face consequences. Last week, Twitter was blocked in Nigeria, after removing its president’s tweet for violating the “abusive behaviour” policy.

Notably, the Nigerian government has not only blocked the platform but also threatened to prosecute everyone trying to circumvent the block. The authorities don’t show the plans to back down. Yesterday, according to Axios, the government doubled down on the ban by “ordering broadcasters to stop using Twitter even to gather news, and the foreign minister summoning Western ambassadors whose countries criticized the ban.”

While Nigeria isn’t a large market for Twitter, it is one of the world’s most populous countries, so the ban is a huge blow to free speech overall. Obviously, it was condemned by other governments and human rights groups, though it’s unclear whether this reaction will change much.

No one has perfect answers on how Twitter and its peers should thread the line between countering malicious actors, not engaging in censorship, and maintaining its bottom line. But it’s important for all stakeholders, including democratic governments, to step in wisely to help achieve this daunting task.

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Photo by Jeremy Zero on Unsplash

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