Much has been written about Elon Musk’s reckless moves to dismantle the system Twitter built to keep its platform safe, threatening to turn it into precisely the kind of “hellscape” that he vowed to avoid. But the concern actually stretches further, affecting much larger platforms with a larger influence on the public debate.
For years, Twitter has played an outsize role in setting the standards for social media as a whole, creating competition among tech companies to make their platforms safe. Twitter is far smaller than other tech companies; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once boasted that his company spends more on safety than Twitter’s annual revenue. But the platform has often been the first mover on significant policy changes with real-world impacts, effectively creating a floor for the industry as a whole.
By taking the first step, Twitter put pressure on other, larger platforms like Google’s YouTube and Meta’s Facebook to follow suit and provided them with critical political cover to make policy changes that were contentious with those affected. For example, Twitter led the way when it cracked down on hundreds of thousands of accounts pushing the QAnon conspiracy theory in July 2020, saying it had the “potential to lead to offline harm.” Facebook announced similar action in August of that year, followed by YouTube.
Twitter wasn’t always effective in enforcing its policy changes, and many users faced hate speech and harassment in the pre-Musk era. But the company nevertheless wrestled with the major issues and often set the standard in how the platforms should act on big, politically fraught issues. With Twitter now reversing course under Musk, it’s unclear if Facebook and Google will feel the pressure to make those tough decisions on their own.
These moves—combined with reports that racist troll activity has surged on Twitter since Musk took the helm—make it unlikely that Twitter will continue to be a leading voice on content moderation. In fact, Twitter appears to be headed in the opposite direction entirely, becoming a new model of an anything-goes platform like 4Chan, regardless of the real-world impacts.
Without Twitter prodding them to make tough content decisions and absorbing the initial blowback, Facebook and YouTube may be more hesitant to make policy changes that require backbone. That could have a serious impact on the social media landscape, with the companies less willing to tackle misinformation, conspiracy theories, and political violence that take root on their platforms.
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