By Siphokuhle MkancuCW Voices

Twitter is now X. More than it is just a name and logo change, the social networking and instant messaging site is deviating from what we’ve understood it to be for a while. The ongoing changes to the platform under the leadership of tech billionaire Elon Musk have left some users disappointed. There have also been growing concerns about the app’s lack of safety, in particular the rise in abusive speech towards users from marginalised groups.  

Before his US$44-billion purchase of the platform, Musk spoke openly about building a service called “X”. His wish for the platform materialised, and by the end of July users were logging on to find the black X icon in their browser tab, and not the blue Twitter bird one they had become used to over 17 years.  

“X is the future state of unlimited interactivity — centred in audio, video, messaging, payments, and banking — creating a global marketplace for ideas, goods, services, and opportunities,” said X’s new CEO Linda Yaccarino, justifying the changes. The app, she explained, would focus more on making revenue through other approaches, beyond just selling advertising.

One of the many changes that came with the transitioning app is a temporary limit on the number of tweets that users can see a day. Verified accounts could read 6 000 posts per day, while older unverified accounts could only read 600, and new unverified accounts, a mere 300 posts. After having reached the limit, users were informed on their timelines that they had exceeded their rate limit and could not see any new tweets or even search for other conversations taking place on the app.

Musk announced these changes on 1 July 2023 and claimed that the limit “addressed extreme levels of data scrapping and system manipulation”.  

One may argue that beyond this being a fleeting re-design exercise, it was one of the ways that the platform would limit access to information for users. Following the backlash received thereafter, it appears that the company felt the pressure of lifting the limits.

Twitter’s role in political and social discourse

Historically, Twitter was an instrumental space for some of the most progressive socio-political discussions affecting the world, and to a large extent encouraged unconventional ways of thinking from influential intellectuals and thought leaders.

From the discussions about South Africa’s #FeesMustFall movement in 2015 and the much needed centring of young people’s voices, to some of the most radical dialogues about the #MeToo movement two years later and the #TotalShutdown movement in 2020, the platform has unquestionably shown up.

Both the #TotalShutdown and #MeToo were demonstrations against gender-based violence (GBV) and rape culture. They were organised through social media and brought to the fore the experiences of women and minority gender identities.

These discussions moved beyond the hashtags, and led to actual physical protests against GBV across South Africa, resulting a government response in the form of the National Summit against GBV and Femicide. The #MeToo movement encouraged people to speak up publicly against perpetrators and highlighted issues of gender inequality and mistreatment as well as the lack of diversity and representation in the film industry. Some high-profile names emerged on both sides of the trend, and soon enough the voices of accusers could not be ignored. Accountability was demanded from the criminal justice system.   

#FeesMustFall on the other hand was a student-led movement against financial exclusion and lack of access to institutions of higher learning. Twitter demonstrated, in real-time, the lived realities of South African students and captured some of the key moments of student activism.

Another example would be #EndSars, which was a social movement against police brutality in Nigeria. Footage of police violence and abuse of power was disseminated on Twitter, which sparked outrage and calls to end impunity for police violence. We then began to see this outrage on the streets – through protest action.

For its role in creating awareness of these social issues and helping users monitor the progress and lack thereof in addressing them, X in its past form should be remembered always.  

The rise in misinformation on X

On the other side of the coin, however, the ease with which users could access information has created opportunities for misinformation and disinformation, to advance political agendas. 

The US-based Knight Foundation commissioned a study in 2018 to investigate how fake news spread on X before, during, and after the 2016 presidential election that saw the ascent of Donald Trump to office. It found more than 6.6-million tweets linking to fake and conspiracy news publishers in the month before the election. Most accounts spreading fake or conspiracy news were estimated to be “bots” or semi-automated accounts. The study also found that although the “large majority of fake news came from supposedly pro-Republican and pro-Donald Trump accounts in the month before the election, smaller but still substantial amounts of fake news were passed on by liberal or Democratic-identified accounts.”

Twitter was taken to task to address the fake news challenge. In South Africa, it emerged that UK-based PR firm Bell Pottinger was instrumental in creating a political narrative that encouraged already-existing factionalism in the ruling ANC and its supporters. There have also been efforts, some by established media houses, to fact check information originating on social media and use the same platforms to release the results thereof. It is through such efforts, and the exposure of Bell Pottinger, that the company’s reputation suffered for its misdeeds in South Africa.

But since Musk took over, the sharing of fake news and conspiracies has been on the rise. Musk removed key anti-disinformation features that Twitter had set up, such as verified users and authenticated accounts (with a blue check mark). This verification legitimised accounts belonging to public figures, news agencies, civil society organisations, and journalists and public commentators. The verification feature also addressed the issue of impersonator accounts on the app.

Now the new rules require profiles wanting to be verified to subscribe and pay for X BlueVerification is no longer an indicator that an account represents who it claims to represent. Instead, it simply reflects that a user pays for a subscription. Not only does this make it more difficult for users to determine an account’s authenticity, but it also delegitimises X’s ability to be a central hub for the sharing of accurate information.

Corruption Watch (CW) is one of the organisations that were stripped off their blue check mark. This has had an impact on the way users engage with the organisation’s content. When users – including those who didn’t follow the CW account – were looking for sources of information about corruption-related matters, they could easily trust the organisation’s profile and share its resources and content.

Losing the verification badge has also meant that the account is less visible on the app. Priority is given to posts from verified accounts in the “For You” feed and search option.

Furthermore, the app has stopped enforcing its policy on misleading information about Covid-19. From December 2020, X had begun to label and remove misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines – the app removed accounts that spread untrue statements about the virus and the impact of the vaccines. 

Lifting this ban has allowed misinformation to spread at a much greater scale, speed, and scope.

Two new alternatives to X

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, alternatives to X are rising in popularity as users search for new platforms to engage with. One of the latest is Spill, which was founded by former X employees, and is more photo- and GIF-focused. It was “built around creating safety for diverse communities.” This is because vulnerable groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, are increasingly feeling unsafe on X. In GLAAD’s 2023 Social Media Safety Index report, X is considered to be the “most dangerous platform for LGBTQ+ people.”

Staying true to his rebranding strategy, Musk went as far as to reinstate users who were previously suspended for violating the platform’s rules, including the account of Trump, who was permanently suspended in 2021 for inciting violence.

Threads on the other hand is like X and is also a text-based conversation app. The Meta-owned app allows users to sign up through their Instagram accounts. That feature is designed to make it easier for users to follow their Instagram friends that are on Threads.

Going forward – what does the future hold?

The changes ushered in by X will have an impact on the ability of social movements to mobilise communities and allies toward a particular goal as they have done in the days of Twitter. Equally, X is moving away from its sense of community and from being a space for education and awareness-raising. 

Going forward, social movements must adapt or at least rethink their strategies and approach to X. As digital rights activist Samantha Floreani puts it: “We must not forget it is people that create social movements, not apps.”

New platforms will not necessarily replace X, but there is an opportunity to create and join safer online spaces.

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