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Friday, July 07, 2023

In the Twitter and Threads rivalry, TikTok is the real winner - The Washington Post

How Twitter lost its place as the global town square

"A series of disastrous missteps over the past year has robbed Twitter of its relevance

Experts say TikTok has replaced Twitter as the go-to forum for much of the world's political discussion. (AP)

Alex Pearlman, a stand-up comedian in Philadelphia, woke up one morning in June and turned on the local news. A portion of Interstate 95 had collapsed. Pearlman thought it was the type of thing people should know about.

Five years ago, he would have turned to Twitter to spread the news. But on that Sunday morning, he picked up his phone and made a TikTok — which quickly amassed more than 2 million views.

A decade ago, Twitter rose to prominence by casting itself as a “global town square,” a space where anyone could reach millions of people overnight. The platform was pivotal in facilitating large social movements, such as the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East and the Black Lives Matter protests over police violence. In a recent email to staff, Twitter’s new chief executive, Linda Yaccarino, repeated this characterization, calling the site “a global town square for communication.”

But Twitter no longer serves this function. Thanks to a string of disastrous missteps over the past year by new owner Elon Musk — punctuated by the decision last week to cap the number of posts users can view — Twitter is hemorrhaging users and relevance. While Meta’s new Threads app is making an impressive debut, most social media experts say TikTok reigns as the new global town square and has held that role for quite a while.

“Twitter is definitely not anyone’s public square. Not anymore,” said Chris Messina, who on Thursday posted the hashtag #DeadTwitter on Threads. Twitter is “Elon Musk’s private playground where he’s about to charge everyone … for entry and access #DeadTwitter.”

Since taking the helm last fall promising to champion “free speech,” Musk has alienated users with a relentless stream of updates that are hostile to the app’s heaviest users. He removed all legacy check marks — Twitter’s years-old way to assure users that posters are really who they say they are — sowing distrust and leading to significant financial consequences for major brands that were easily impersonated under the new system. He then sold blue check marks, which ensured amplification to anyone willing to pay $8 a month, allowing scammers and grifters to crowd out the replies to popular tweets. Interesting content has been down-ranked in favor of pay-to-play blue check mark replies, some of which push crypto scams and pornography.

Musk also flooded the “for you” timeline with his own tweets, driving away users who came to the service to follow friends and interests outside of the platform’s billionaire owner.

“Before, if I saw someone was verified, they’d have to have done something of note to get it,” said Ryan Fay, a theater director in Atlanta. “Now, I can’t trust anyone who claims to be a journalist and has a check mark because they paid for it, and I don’t know if they have any credentials or knowledge. Seeing a blue check now means this person is using Twitter to try to sell me something or some sort of scamming.”

Musk also fired Twitter’s trust and safety team, allowing harassment and abuse to explode across the platform unchecked. He’s banned prominent journalists and liberal activists. He’s railed against LGTBQ people and declared the word “cisgender” a slur. If that wasn’t enough to drive the most dedicated Twitter users to greener pastures, last week he began limiting the number of tweets users could read, blocking nonpaying users from being served more than 600 tweets per day.

All of this has led users to stop relying on the service. Daniel, 17, a rising senior in a Philadelphia high school who asked to be referred to by only his first name because he’s underage, said Twitter is simply “not the spot” anymore. “People my age are going to Instagram and TikTok before they go to Twitter,” he said.

Some of Twitter’s struggles predate Musk. The company had been hemorrhaging celebrities and high-profile figures in entertainment and media for years as they moved to more visual-focused platforms, and it has long faced difficulties retaining younger users.

Twitter’s biggest struggle is that it’s an arcane follow-based social network, meaning users must manually seek out other users to follow to receive content, and if a user has no followers, it’s very hard to be heard. Contrast that with an app like TikTok, which delivers content through a highly sophisticated algorithmic feed. This means that even a user with zero followers on TikTok can reach millions with their first video.

TikTok also allows users to consume a breathtaking amount of information jammed into each short video. “People on TikTok are absorbing so much more content than on Twitter,” said Daniel, the high school senior. “TikTok is really good at hitting you with multiple things you’re interested in.”

Walid Mohammed, founder of the Bread Winners Club, a marketing agency, said TikTok has replaced Twitter as his go-to source for news and entertainment. “I used to go to Google,” he said, “then I went to Twitter, and now I use TikTok for information and news.”

Popular memes and catchphrases emerge first on TikTok, teenagers say, and don’t make their way onto Twitter until weeks later, making Twitter feel like a less culturally relevant place.

“Twitter is the place where us boomers talk about what the kids are up to on TikTok,” said Neeraj K. Agrawal, 34, director of communications at Coin Center, a cryptocurrency policy think tank, and a heavy Twitter user. “That role as a filter for the strangest and best of the internet has moved [from Twitter] over to TikTok. The mainstream audience and the rest of the world is getting that information from TikTok now.”

Amanda J Feuerman, an adjunct instructor in social media marketing at UCLA, said Twitter has failed to make itself appealing to younger generations, while TikTok has emerged as “a trusted source for information” for them.

“You’ve got a whole new generation of news influencers who are being invited to the White House,” she said. “Biden certainly isn’t inviting Twitter influencers to the White House. I think it lends a degree of credibility to TikTok.”

For a long time, Twitter was the default platform where government and public officials turned to get their message out and reach constituents. But that role too has been subsumed by TikTok. For instance, when Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro sought to communicate updates on the I-95 bridge collapse, he turned to TikTok, working with a slew of news influencers to get real-time information out about the collapse and the government’s response.

“Where people are finding community and trusted sources of information is changing,” said Annie Newman, Shapiro’s director of digital strategy. “Reaching people where they are requires a proactive, all-of-the-above approach … we’re going to keep engaging directly with Pennsylvanians where they are — whether it’s their local newspaper or their favorite TikTokers.”

Grant Goodman, 23, an actor in Georgia, said that “nowadays, people send me more TikToks than they do tweets.”

“I get geography TikToks, attorneys, tons of political analysis, entertainment coverage,” he said. “There’s a lot of interesting, educated people covering geography, food science, chemistry, election predictions, cutting-edge information, all kinds of stuff that I used to rely on Twitter for.”

Goodman says Musk’s chaotic changes have made Twitter unusable. “Since the Elon Musk takeover, I see all these terrible people in my feed,” he said. “The worst replies are now prioritized to the top.”

Meme accounts are also fleeing Twitter. The owner and administrator of @RightWingCope, a Twitter account that documents right-wing internet ephemera, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his identity, said, “The quality of discussions [on Twitter] has gotten worse, mainly because Twitter blue accounts are pinned to the top and spam is much worse on the site.”

He now receives far more links to political TikToks than tweets, a sign, he says, of a new hub for politics. “People are communicating political stories through TikTok more than ever,” he said. “A TikTok video is much more engaging than reading a Twitter thread; it’s also more digestible.”

As part of its role as the internet’s “global town square,” Twitter also served up pop culture and comedy. But the boom in hate speech and harassment since Musk took over has permanently altered the tone of Twitter, many users say. “Twitter does not have that sense of community and playfulness,” said Alex Falcone, a comedian in Los Angeles.

Falcone, like many comedians, now uses TikTok to reach audiences and workshop jokes. “There was a time where Twitter was good for posting a thought and the responses would help me tease out a thought,” he said. “At some point it turned into just people saying, ‘You’re stupid,’ and the actual interactions with people dried up. Whereas on TikTok, the comments are super insightful, and there’s a playfulness. It reminds me of an improv game.”

TikTok’s position as the internet’s new town square could face some competition from Threads, Meta’s latest app, which is essentially a Twitter clone. The app launched Wednesday evening, immediately attracting high-profile celebrities and content creators. Its sign-ups after less than 48 hours of existence totaled  70 million, making it the fastest-growing new site ever.

Some are not ready to make the switch from Twitter to Threads. “Engagement on Twitter has been lower,” said Tiffany Fong, a content creator who grew a large audience on Twitter by covering the FTX meltdown this year. “If I got more engagement on Threads, I’d switch over to Threads.”

However, she added, “if I got footage of something notable I wouldn’t think to post it on Twitter,” she said. “I’d think I’d post it on TikTok.”

In the Twitter and Threads rivalry, TikTok is the real winner - The Washington Post

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Federal Judge Limits Biden Officials’ Contacts With Social Media Sites

Federal Judge Limits Biden Officials’ Contacts With Social Media Sites

“The order came in a lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, who claim the administration is trying to silence its critics.

The lawsuit named as defendants President Biden and dozens of federal officials.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

A federal judge in Louisiana on Tuesday restricted the Biden administration from communicating with social media platforms about broad swaths of content online, a ruling that could curtail efforts to combat false and misleading narratives about the coronavirus pandemic and other issues.

The order, which could have significant First Amendment implications, is a major development in a fierce legal fight over the boundaries and limits of speech online.

It was a victory for Republicans who have often accused social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube of disproportionately taking down right-leaning content, sometimes in collaboration with government. Democrats say the platforms have failed to adequately police misinformation and hateful speech, leading to dangerous outcomes, including violence.

In the ruling, Judge Terry A. Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana said that parts of the government, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, could not talk to social media companies for “the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech.”

In granting a preliminary injunction, Judge Doughty said that the agencies could not flag specific posts to the social media platforms or request reports about their efforts to take down content. The ruling said that the government could still notify the platforms about posts detailing crimes, national security threats or foreign attempts to influence elections.

“If the allegations made by plaintiffs are true, the present case arguably involves the most massive attack against free speech in United States’ history,” the judge said. “The plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits in establishing that the government has used its power to silence the opposition.”

Courts are increasingly being forced to weigh in on such issues — with the potential to upend decades of legal norms that have governed speech online.

The Republican attorneys general of Texas and Florida are defending first-of-their-kind state laws that bar internet platforms from taking down certain political content, and legal experts believe those cases may eventually reach the Supreme Court. The high court this year declined to limit a law that allows the platforms to escape legal liability for content that users post to the sites.

The ruling on Tuesday, in a lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri, is likely to be appealed by the Biden administration, but its impact could force government officials, including law enforcement agencies, to refrain from notifying the platforms of troublesome content.

Government officials have argued they do not have the authority to order posts or entire accounts removed, but federal agencies and the tech giants have long worked together to take action against illegal or harmful material, especially in cases involving child sexual abuse, human trafficking and other criminal activity. That has also included regular meetings to share information on the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.

The White House said the Justice Department was reviewing the ruling and evaluating its next steps.

“Our consistent view remains that social media platforms have a critical responsibility to take account of the effects their platforms are having on the American people, but make independent choices about the information they present,” the White House said in a statement.

Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment. Twitter did not have a comment, and Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Jeff Landry, the Louisiana attorney general, said in a statement that the judge’s order was “historic.” Missouri’s attorney general, Andrew Bailey, hailed the ruling as a “huge win in the fight to defend our most fundamental freedoms.” Both officials are Republican.

How Times reporters cover politics. Times journalists may vote, but they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. That includes participating in rallies and donating money to a candidate or cause.

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“What a way to celebrate Independence Day,” Mr. Bailey said on Twitter.

The issue of the government’s influence over social media has become increasingly partisan.

The Republican majority in the House has taken up the cause, smothering universities and think tanks that have studied the issue with onerous requests for information and subpoenas.

The judge’s order bars government agencies from communicating with some of those outside groups, including the Election Integrity Partnership, the Virality Project and the Stanford Internet Observatory, in order to induce the removal of protected speech online. Alex Stamos, the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, which was involved in leading the two other projects, declined to comment.

Since acquiring Twitter last year, Elon Musk has echoed Republican arguments, releasing internal company documents to chosen journalists suggesting what they claimed was collusion between company and government officials. Though that remains far from proven, some of the documents Mr. Musk disclosed ended up in the lawsuit’s arguments.

The defendants, the social media companies and experts who study disinformation have argued that there is no evidence of a systematic effort by the government to censor individuals in violation of the First Amendment. David Rand, an expert on misinformation at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his understanding was that the government had at most a limited impact on how social media platforms engaged with misinformation.

At the same time, emails and text messages made public in the case that Judge Doughty ruled on have shown instances where officials complained to social media executives when influential users spread disinformation, especially involving the coronavirus pandemic.

The states said in their lawsuit that they had a “sovereign and proprietary interest in receiving free flow of information in public discourse on social-media platforms.”

In addition to the Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general, the case was brought by four other plaintiffs: Jayanta Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, epidemiologists who questioned the government’s handling of the pandemic; Aaron Kheriaty, a professor dismissed by the University of California, Irvine, for refusing to have a coronavirus vaccination; Jill Hines, a director of Health Freedom Louisiana, an organization that has been accused of disinformation; and Jim Hoft, founder of Gateway Pundit, a right-wing news site. The four additional plaintiffs said social media sites removed some of their posts.

Although the lawsuit named as defendants President Biden and dozens of officials in 11 government agencies, some of the instances cited took place during the Trump administration.

Judge Doughty, who was appointed to the federal court by President Donald J. Trump in 2017, has been sympathetic to conservative cases, having previously blocked the Biden administration’s national vaccination mandate for health care workers and overturned its ban on new federal leases for oil and gas drilling.

He allowed the plaintiffs extensive discovery and depositions from prominent officials like Anthony S. Fauci, then the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who told the plaintiffs’ lawyers that he was not involved in any discussions to censor content online.

Some experts in First Amendment law and misinformation criticized the Tuesday ruling.

“It can’t be that the government violates the First Amendment simply by engaging with the platforms about their content-moderation decisions and policies,” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “If that’s what the court is saying here, it’s a pretty radical proposition that isn’t supported by the case law.”

Mr. Jaffer added that the government has to balance between calling out false speech without stepping into informal coercion that veers toward censorship. “Unfortunately Judge Doughty’s order doesn’t reflect a serious effort to reconcile the competing principles,” he said.

Judge Doughty’s ruling said the injunction would remain in place while proceedings in the lawsuit continued unless he or a higher court ruled differently.

Emma Goldberg contributed reporting.

Steven Lee Myers covers misinformation for The Times. He has worked in Washington, Moscow, Baghdad and Beijing, where he contributed to the articles that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2021. He is also the author of “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin.” @stevenleemyers Facebook

David McCabe covers tech policy. He joined The Times from Axios in 2019.“

Monday, July 03, 2023

How Twitter’s new drastic changes will affect what users can view on the site | Twitter | The Guardian

How Twitter’s new drastic changes will affect what users can view on the site

"Elon Musk says ‘temporary limits’ address security issues, while some users suspect move is to lift Twitter Blue paid subscriptions

Elon Musk with twitter logo
Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk, has overseen some sudden and drastic changes to the social media site.Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Twitter has limited how much content users can view each day in a move the company’s owner claims is about addressing “system manipulation”.

Does this latest move spell the end of the social media platform for good – and where can people go now?

What has Elon Musk done to Twitter?

Last week Twitter made a number of abrupt changes reducing the usability of the service.

First, the company required users to log in to view the site – previously even people without Twitter profiles could view tweets. It then imposed a limit on the vast majority of users who do not pay for the platform, restricting unverified accounts to viewing 600 tweets a day, later upped to 1,000.

Why has Twitter made these changes?

Musk tweeted that these changes were “temporary limits” designed to address “extreme levels of data scraping” and “system manipulation”. It isn’t clear whether this is what is occurring but data scraping is where automated services, such as AI, scoop up all the publicly available data on a website.

Musk tweeted that “almost every company doing AI” was taking “vast amounts of data” from Twitter, which Musk said was forcing the company to deploy more servers – at a cost – to cope with the demand. Generative AI tools such as chatbots and image generation services are based on large language models (LLM), which are “trained” on vast amounts of data take from internet sites including Wikipedia, Twitter and Reddit.

One expert said using Twitter for LLM training could be problematic for other reasons. “It’s questionable whether we should continue to use data sources like Twitter – the language and sentiment embodied tends to be terse, often confrontational and contains a lot of disinformation,” says Dr Andrew Rogoyski of the Institute for People-Centred AI at the University of Surrey.

“While we as humans know how to filter such data (mostly), training and AI on raw Twitter feeds can lead to problems with the way the AI interacts with people.”

Some users believe the view limitation move is an attempt to encourage Twitter Blue subscriptions – where users can view 10,000 tweets daily. Others believe Twitter could have had capacity constraints forced upon it by suppliers who rent server capacity to the company. Twitter’s former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth wrote in a thread on Twitter’s rival Blusky: “It just doesn’t pass the sniff test that scraping all of a sudden created such dramatic performance problems that Twitter had no choice but to put everything behind a login.”

He added: “Scraping was the open secret of Twitter data access. We knew about it. It was fine.”

What do the Twitter changes mean?

Over the weekend, users were hit with “rate limit exceeded” messages after they hit their limit. Some were able to wait a while and refresh their timelines, while others could not view more tweets for the rest of the day.

Initially, using the Twitter-owned TweetDeck product bypassed the limits. As of Monday, users reported issues with accessing their feeds on TweetDeck.

The changes are likely to affect those who use Twitter as a resource to get immediate breaking news.

Where can we go instead?

Up until the last few days, Twitter had still had been largely functional and many users had not been pushed to leave the site.

But as Twitter makes it harder for users to view tweets, a successor may emerge.

One option is Bluesky – launched in February by the former Twitter chief Jack Dorsey. The site had to shut off new sign-ups over the weekend as users began leaving Twitter. New sign-ups were back on as of Monday.

Ron DeSantis announces 2024 presidential bid at glitchy Twitter event – video

Only people with invitation codes from other users can sign up at this stage, and Bluesky stresses it is still in development. It has a similar look and feel to Twitter, and has an app, but currently does not allow direct messaging or allow people to upload videos.

Mastodon was also touted as an alternative to Twitter, and while it has built communities in the months since Musk’s takeover, it has not yet replaced Twitter. However, it has received 85,000 new sign-ups over the past day, according to one tracker site, taking the number of accounts to 13m. Twitter has more than 250 million users, according to Musk.

It appears that Meta, the company behind Facebook and Instagram, is preparing to step in to fill the gap Twitter is leaving, with reports the text-based app Threads or “Project 92” is about to be released imminently.

Screenshots from the app suggest it will look very Twitter-like and allow users to connect with people they follow on Instagram. That would remove one of the biggest hurdles people have had switching from Twitter – finding all the accounts you used to follow.

Could the move damage Twitter commercially?

The New York Times reported that some Twitter sales employees were asking for advice on what to tell clients as they realised some ads were not being displayed on the platform. The new chief executive of Twitter, Linda Yaccarino, came from the world of TV advertising – signalling that Musk has made rebuilding relationships with advertisers a priority.

This latest problem could complicate that process. Before its acquisition by Musk, Twitter had relied on advertising for the majority of its income but some advertisers have either paused or reduced spending because of concerns about how the Tesla chief is running the platform."

How Twitter’s new drastic changes will affect what users can view on the site | Twitter | The Guardian