Twitter Hasn’t Been ‘Enshittified’, It Always Sucked

Twitter Hasn’t Been ‘Enshittified’, It Always Sucked

Twitter is officially dead. Since Elon Musk’s $US44 billion acquisition of it late last year, people have been saying it’s dead or dying or will die. Musk ended the argument when he renamed the app “X.” And now, so many people seem to pine for the days when Twitter was good. But let me tell you, it was never good. It was a place of sadness and attention farming; a place for enemies and humiliation. It was, in short, shit.

After renaming and subsuming Jack Dorsey’s baby into a separate opaque corporation, Musk launched a quixotic effort earlier this year to transform Twitter from a simple (if bloated) microblogging site into a kind of Swiss Army knife of digital services. With attempted integrations of crypto payments, YouTube-like content, voice and video calls, long-form writing, and live streaming, Musk has tried to create what he calls an “everything app”—a platform that can bring together an all-encompassing unification of consumer needs and interests. In interviews, Musk has compared this vision to that of China’s WeChat, a ubiquitous super-app used by over a billion Chinese citizens.

For the most part, these changes have not gone over well. Recent reports show that the platform has lost as much as 13 per cent of its daily active users during the past year, and X is also thought to have lost billions (maybe tens of billions) in value—meaning it may now only be worth a fraction of what Elon originally paid for it. Many users have complained of a general degradation of feed and content quality, and Musk’s changes—many of which have been laughably bizarre—have rightfully suffered from a maelstrom of criticism.

While it’s easy to throw stones at the billionaire’s flailing efforts, it’s also worth noting that Twitter has never been a fun place to hang out, nor—I would argue—is it a company that’s had a particularly positive impact on the world. Indeed, recent screeds against the platform talk of “enshittification,” as if Twitter were some sort of model website that only recently slid downhill as a result of Musk’s stupidity. In reality, Twitter didn’t need enshittifying—because it was always terrible. Sure, the platform might suck more now. But, if anything, Musk’s changes have helped throw into relief the site’s inherent flaws instead of allowing them to hide and fester behind a veneer of respectability. In that sense, Musk may have unintentionally done us all a favour.

If you don’t believe me, it might be helpful to look back at the platform’s less-than-savoury history, lest you’ve somehow forgotten about all of the ways that Twitter sucks. Here is a modest list of the platform’s sins against the internet.

Sin #1: Not a happy place

Let’s start with the basics. I’ve never been a huge fan of Twitter for one simple reason: I don’t enjoy being on the platform. In general, a large pile of research seems to demonstrate that I’m not alone in that respect. We all know that social media doesn’t engender the best in humanity and that, with some minor exceptions, being chronically online is not particularly good for your mental health. In addition to its depressive effect, however, I also can’t help but feel that Twitter actively turns people into assholes. If you’re intent on being anything other than an attention-seeking dick or a rage-filled troll, the incentive structure for Twitter is all wrong. People get points for putting others down, for crucifying their enemies, and for bragging about their achievements. Sure, there’s a lot of good comedy and humour on Twitter, but it’s all inextricably wrapped up with the platform’s real preoccupation, which is self-promotion. As a country, we treat this platform as if it were one of the venues most optimised for public discourse when, in reality, it’s one of the worst. Media companies—and the journalism industry, specifically—have built their entire business models around Twitter when, web traffic aside, it doesn’t have any real positive impact on the end product.

Sin #2: Disinformation Inc.

It’s easy to forget that, in its earliest days, Twitter was not a well-liked platform. When it launched, it was broadly thought of as a superficial place where superficial people shared superficial thoughts. Non-users often seemed confused as to what the site’s appeal was. “Who cares what I ate for breakfast?” became a common refrain among critics who felt the platform was a way for people to update others about the tedious minutia of their days.

Twitter largely retained this reputation until the Arab Spring, when—amidst alleged widespread political organising via the social media site—it was suddenly lauded as a tool for “democratisation.” Shortly thereafter, Twitter’s leadership began claiming that their platform wasn’t just a way to tell people about what you ate for breakfast, but was, in fact, a revolutionary product that could change the world. It would give a voice to the voiceless and help marginalised communities broadcast their experiences to the global public.

Yet at the same time that the site was garnering a reputation as a bastion of American-style free expression, it was also troubled by a growing problem: The growth of inauthentic content. As early as 2010, researchers noted the company’s serious bot problem. The company’s open-door policy allowed anyone to sneak onto the site, create a profile, and start posting. As a result, digital astroturfing—the trend whereby organisations used fake online engagement to make it appear as if there is active support for a policy or product—exploded on the site. Soon, it became apparent that telling the difference between a real person and a Twitter bot could be exceedingly difficult.

You could argue that this problem became most pronounced in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election when Russia was accused of leveraging U.S. social media to target Americans with disinformation. But disinformation on Twitter did not begin with Vladimir Putin. Nor did it end there. The platform has been, for years, a cesspool of all different kinds of influence campaigns—the likes of which have caused chaos not just in the U.S. but all over the world.

Some examples of the platform’s information pollution are decidedly more dire than others. During the pandemic, for example, the swell of noxious information on the platform exploded to a terrifying degree. In 2020, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University published a study claiming that, of some 200 million tweets involving COVID-19 misinformation, nearly half appeared to have been shared by fake or automated accounts. Another study from that same year showed that, of the major social media platforms, Twitter was the worst when it came to the unmitigated spread of COVID misinformation.

Twitter’s bot problem has always been a hotly debated topic. Prior to Musk’s takeover, Twitter executives frequently claimed that the percentage was likely “less than 5 per cent.” However, researchers have consistently guessed that the real number is much higher. Indeed, many claim that the rate could be as high as 15 to 20 per cent—which, if true, would mean that a whopping 50 million accounts may be fake or automated. Peiter Zatko, former head of Twitter’s security division, has testified that during his tenure with the platform, executives didn’t know how many bots existed and, worse, weren’t particularly interested in finding out. According to him, the company never bothered to create a reliable internal data management system that could quantify which accounts were real and which were fake. Zatko thus concluded that bot accounts were “part of the median user’s experience on the platform,” meaning they were everywhere.

In a whistleblower complaint he later filed with Congress, Zatko noted that the Twitter C-suite was actively hostile to the idea of identifying what was real and what was fake on the platform:

The company could not even provide an accurate upper bound on the total number of spam bots on the platform. The site integrity team gave three reasons for this failure: (1) they did not know how to measure; (2) they were buried under constant firefighting and could not keep up with reacting to bots and other platform abuse; and, most troubling, (3) senior management had no appetite to properly measure the prevalence of bot accounts—because as Mudge later learned from a different sensitive source, they were concerned that if accurate measurements ever became public, it would harm the image and valuation of the company.

Suffice it to say, it has never been in Twitter’s business interests to actively try to fix the problem of disinformation and, as a result, disinformation has flourished on the site. Of course, too much focus on the sheer scale of inauthentic activity ignores the fact that—past a certain point—size doesn’t matter, in this context. Even if the number of fake accounts on Twitter is less than, say, 50 million, it doesn’t take that many bots to cause a whole lot of trouble. Even just several dozen automated accounts can generate a news story or can significantly influence public opinion around a particular event. Wealthy people and companies have long understood this, which is why they’ve repeatedly been caught using Twitter to artificially inflate the visibility of their brands—or to shape the narrative around them.

In 2018, a New York Times investigation into celebrities’ use of fake accounts showed rampant examples of how the platform had been converted into little more than a shadow PR service for the rich and famous. In 2019, a leaked video showed Howard Stern lecturing his staff about why they should create fake Twitter profiles to boost attention for his show.

The problem with this should be obvious: For those who can afford it, Twitter is a perfect vehicle to launder online manipulations that can have real-world impacts—be it good PR for a brand that is lagging, a smear campaign against a competitor, or an attempt to mess with democratic politics.

It recently came to light that Twitter had blatantly helped amplify the U.S.’s propaganda efforts in the Middle East—the very region where the site had once promised to let “free speech” flourish. The Intercept reported earlier this year that the company had previously compiled a special “whitelist,” the likes of which allowed—in at least one instance—the Pentagon’s PSYOPs teams to operate on the site unencumbered by content moderators. While the extent to which Twitter has allowed such activities to flourish on its site is unknown, the implications of the very existence of such a whitelist should be clear: Twitter has never been a neutral arbiter of information. Instead, it has always been a platform that can easily be co-opted to disseminate organised deceptions.

Sin #3: Fueling Polarisation

Since Elon has taken over Twitter, he’s made what many have deemed a disturbing purge of the platform’s content moderation teams. But while Musk has been—and should be—criticised for this, it should be noted that it’s not as if Twitter ever had a coherent or particularly effective content moderation strategy. Indeed, if anything, the platform’s flailing efforts pre-Musk helped fuel national polarisation and led to some of the worst instances of online radicalisation.

At best, you might argue that Twitter moderated opportunistically in the past. For years, the platform actively resisted calls for more intensive moderation and did little to rid itself of the most problematic accounts. Indeed, those who are upset about the return of Alex Jones to the platform should remember that Jack Dorsey allowed the conspiracy mogul to remain on the site for years and, in at least one instance, defended the decision to give Jones safe harbour while other sites were actively booting him. It was only during the Trump years that, amidst ongoing scandals, the company became decidedly more interested in regulating the flow of conversation on the site. Even then, however, it only tended to neutralise users who had been involved in high-profile scandals and mostly ignored entire ecosystems of other controversial content.

A good example of this is the site’s decision to boot Qanon accounts and other rightwing figures in the wake of the January 6th attack, on the basis that the accounts had dangerously inflamed parts of the electorate. That decision seems somewhat ironic because, during the same period, the platform allowed members of the Taliban to maintain an active presence on the site. Similarly, supporters of the Islamic State (you know, the group known for cutting people’s heads off?) continued to use the site during this same period. The Azov battalion, a rightwing paramilitary group affiliated with the Ukrainian defence forces that is broadly considered to have neo-Nazi sympathies, was also allowed to keep posting—this, despite its members’ propensity for expressing hatred for gay and Black people. Again, why? Dopey right-wing influencers get cancelled but literal, actual terrorists and neo-Nazis are allowed to tweet? How does that make any sense?

Musk’s leadership has been criticised for its permissive attitude towards certain controversial conservative figures, so much so that it’s easy to forget that pre-Musk Twitter also played a substantial role in fueling the January 6th mess. Indeed, while rightwing sites like Parler and Gab initially suffered the lion’s share of the blame for the violent ruckus three years ago, more recent investigations seem to show that most mainstream social sites—most notably, Twitter—were serious breeding grounds for the MAGA blowup.

Of course, it bears consideration that pretty much all of the big social media platforms are terrible at content moderation. I’m not arguing that Twitter is uniquely terrible in this respect, only that the difference between the site’s hapless attempts at moderation and Musk’s willful disengagement with it doesn’t appear to be all that meaningful in the grand scheme of things.

Sin #4: Structurally Insecure

In the months before Musk’s successful acquisition of the platform, Twitter was suffering through one of the worst cybersecurity scandals in living history. The site’s former head of security, famed hacker Peiter Zatko (aka “Mudge”), had blown the whistle on a variety of security and privacy deficiencies at the company, revealing a tangled web of misconduct, lies, and what can only be characterised as sheer corporate laziness. The implications of Zatko’s claims transcended mere platform security deficiencies and appeared to reveal institutional bugs in Twitter’s way of doing business.

Twitter had never been good at cybersecurity. Indeed, since its inception, the company suffered one data breach after another, many of which seemed entirely avoidable. The platform’s various security fiascos—including a bad one in 2020 that involved teenage hackers hijacking the profiles of Barack Obama and Joe Biden—predated Musk’s takeover. But Mudge’s revelations last year revealed security deficiencies of a different sort. The whistleblower’s disturbing allegations revealed a platform that, in addition to being a perfect vehicle for the laundering of propaganda and information operations, it was also deeply vulnerable to more sophisticated forms of malign influence: espionage.

According to Mudge, governments see Twitter as a powerful platform that can be leveraged to both spy on and control populations. “If you are not placing foreign agents inside Twitter — because it’s very difficult to detect them [and] it is very valuable to a foreign agent to be inside there — as a foreign intelligence company, you’re most likely not doing your job,” the former security executive said during his testimony to Congress last year. Indeed, Mudge’s report claims that, beginning in 2021, he became aware that Twitter had likely been “penetrated by foreign intelligence agencies and/or was complicit in threats to democratic governance.” Multiple spy scandals—including one involving operatives from Saudi Arabia—have shown that his suspicions were right.

In many ways, it seemed like Twitter was just begging for this to happen. Any security professional will tell you that access control is an important part of corporate cybersecurity. Being able to determine who sees what is a key part of keeping a business safe. At Twitter, it appears nobody ever got this memo. A shocking amount of the platform’s employees had liberal access to not only the site’s user data but also to its engineering environment.

Indeed, according to the Mudge complaint, “about half” of Twitter’s more than 10,000 employees had access to both “sensitive live production systems and user data.” Additionally, it appears that no logging system was in place to show who had made changes to the site’s production environment. In other words, any engineer at the company could make software changes to the platform and there would be no record of what had happened or who had done it, according to Mudge. This is somewhat equivalent to a bank posting the passcodes to its most valuable vaults on the wall of its lobby and inviting employees to just mosey around and do whatever they feel like inside of them.

If you believe Mudge’s allegations, it’s clear that this left users’ data at the whims of an extremely vulnerable security environment. According to Mudge’s complaint, Twitter employees were…

…repeatedly found to be intentionally installing spyware on their work computers at the request of external organisations. Twitter learned of this several times only by accident, or because of employee self-reporting. In other words, in addition to a large portion of the employee computers having software updates disabled, system firewalls turned off, and remote desktop enabled for non-approved purposes, it was repeatedly demonstrated that until leadership would stumble across end-point (employee computer) problems, external people or organisations had more awareness of activity on some Twitter employee computers than Twitter itself had.

Altogether, the Mudge case seemed to reveal some dark realities about Twitter: namely, that it in addition to being a money-driven platform, capable of impacting political and cultural conversations in the U.S. and elsewhere, it was dangerously insecure. Far from being a platform that could end-run state censorship and control, it actually seems to be a far better vehicle for the deployment of government censorship, propaganda, and surveillance.

The world might be better off without Twitter

In this writer’s opinion, arguing that Twitter is worse now is sorta like claiming that a paper sack full of dog shit is worse after it’s been set on fire. Yes, sure, it is worse—but it wasn’t super great to begin with.

Far before Musk took over, the kindest assessment of the platform was that it was an occasionally fun place to read about current events and see memes. I will admit that the experience of being on X/Twitter—especially as a journalist—can be exhilarating. For news junkies, the rush of information that the site is capable of pumping into your brain is probably the closest equivalent our demographic gets to taking a hit off a crack pipe. All of that said, a more sober appraisal of the pre-Musk days might be that—at its worst—Twitter was a dangerously insecure, terribly run platform, that seemed structurally designed to spread disinformation and propaganda. If it has changed the speed at which information can be delivered to global audiences, that convenience may not offset the multitude of dangers that the site has also introduced to the web.

One thing that Musk’s flailing reforms have done is to relieve Twitter of the reputation of being a reputable site—which is something it probably never deserved in the first place. Indeed, it bears some consideration that while X has lost a substantial amount of money over the past year and is suffering mightily as a brand, it doesn’t seem that much different than its predecessor. What has changed is the public perception of the platform. When the verification fiascos of Musk’s early days were happening, I couldn’t help but laugh. It seemed like the pretence of seriousness around the site was evaporating, allowing Twitter to be revealed for what it always was: a fictional place, guided by arbitrary rules, that is mostly filled with bullshit.

There seems to be a pretty high possibility that Musk will kill the platform. Among other things, X appears to be losing a massive amount of money and Musk literally just told potential advertisers to go fuck themselves. So, things aren’t looking good. Should the worst happen, I am clearly not going to be mourning the app’s passing. While I don’t think that Twitter necessarily deserves the death it might suffer at the hands of Musk, I also don’t think that we, as a society, need Twitter. At the very least, we could certainly stand to take it a lot less seriously and rely on it a lot less for news and information. In the long run, the web might be a better place if we all just went back to posting about what we ate for breakfast.

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