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How to understand Twitter's bad new direction

Mike Elgan | Aug. 25, 2014
Twitter decides that users can't be trusted to follow the right people, so it's being turned into a second-rate Facebook.

Making reality available to people who choose to confront it is important. Viewing the terrorist videos may cause one voter to support increased involvement in the Middle East in order to confront the terrorists, while it may cause another to want to reduce involvement and leave the whole mess behind.

By banning terrorist videos, Twitter is either abdicating its role as the world's public square or telling us that it knows what's good for us, based on the naive belief that censoring upsetting images is an unalloyed "good." Or maybe it just doesn't care because there's too much money to be made.

Make no mistake that value judgments are being made, and those represent the values of the people who run Twitter. In most of the world, the kind of pornography that's widely available on Twitter is considered far more offensive than violent videos.

There's other violent imagery with political consequences. Pictures of the dead body of Michael Brown, the teenager who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., were not censored by Twitter. But if Twitter continues to tighten its censorship policy, would images like that be banned in the future? If Twitter had censored the Michael Brown images, would the response to the events in Ferguson have been different? Is it really Twitter's job to decide the outcome of political or social opinions, feelings and actions?

It's a slippery slope. Especially if Twitter's goal is to make Twitter a friendlier place for advertisers. Today, it's violent terrorist videos. Next, it could be all violent videos, then all war footage, then all naked people. The next thing you know, Twitter will be a sanitized Facebook or Google+.

Speaking of Facebook, its recently reported experimentation on users involved a "mood study" where Facebook's research group deliberately selected posts from users' family and friends to ensure that the net effect of a user's News Feed was either positive or negative. The company wanted to find out if seeing positive posts caused users to post more positive status updates themselves (researchers found that in fact it did -- mood is contagious). That gives Facebook an algorithmic dial for turning up or down the positivity of Facebook overall.

It makes me wonder whether instead of social media being a place for exploring and understanding other people and the world, it instead becomes a dumbed-down information equivalent of "soma" in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World -- the place where we go to forget all our troubles and get distracted by frivolity.

Marketers know that happy people spend more money. It seems like we're headed for a world in which social media sites are increasingly happy and nonthreatening places -- places that present people with a highly sanitized, sugar-coated view of the world. Don't worry about all those horrible things going on in the world -- just focus on your bread and circuses and buy, buy, buy! Be a consumer, not a citizen.

 

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