[Chronique d’Emilie Nicolas] Twitter and “ragiculture”

Twitter, really, is blah-blah. Or, at least, that is one of the meanings of the English word that gave its name to the now famous social network.

Founded in 2006, Twitter has long remained a place for light, frivolous chatter for ordinary users without particularly public profiles. Things changed around the 2010s, when activists took over the platform. In their hands, the ease of publications and their concise nature became powerful tools of popular mobilization against autocratic and authoritarian regimes. It became almost cliché, at one time, to “discuss” the role of social media in the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.

In North America, Twitter has become an important protest space for minority groups and human rights defenders. Organic communities created and amplified voices and perspectives that were (and remain) often excluded from mainstream media.

In the mid-2010s, youth, women, people of color and the LGBTQ community, in particular, were among the most active users of the platform. Twitter has become a workshop where people who have never been given a microphone by journalists can create one themselves. It is in this context that #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo emerged. Both influential social movements and must-have hashtags, they’re both hard to imagine without Twitter.

Activists a priori are not known to the general public, therefore, which has turned the social network of bla-bla into a space for political discourse. In times of crisis, Twitter has also proven to be a valuable tool for delivering the latest news quickly, every minute. When journalists took the platform, the flow of information took on a new rhythm. Naturally, celebrities and politicians followed in the footsteps of all these wonderful people, a question of being “where things happen”.

In retrospect, we can see that things definitely got tough from there. During the Arab Spring, Twitter (and Facebook) were tools for power struggles. Over the years, the site has become a place where power – including the President of the United States himself – has come to manipulate the masses, spread conspiracy theories and sow discord.

In the same way, the more Twitter became a promising space for African-American mobilization, the more far-right groups began to invest in it. Fake accounts that sow chaos and distrust in activist communities, trolls and their harassment, fake news, and campaigns by reactionary public figures are all tactics put in place to stifle change. social media promoted by groups that gave value to Twitter.

In order not to lose too many advertisers who are sensitive to the reputation of their trademarks, the company wants — very, very shyly — to put a limit on misinformation and hate spreading on its site, and to ban certain users . Part of the American right has not digested it. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and Space X, revolted. And now, on Friday, he made the social network his personal property. “The bird is freed,” he chirped triumphantly.

Can a revolutionary movement against a dictatorship or a popular uprising against police violence still thrive on a platform now controlled by the richest man on the planet? No one has a crystal ball, of course, but we can seriously doubt it.

Make no mistake: Twitter has always been a private company, built for the pursuit of profit for its shareholders, far removed from the community space itself. But with the platform changing into Elon Musk’s personal playground, there’s something about Twitter’s very ethos that just changed — no matter how far-reaching the changes the unlikely billionaire would eventually make.

Musk is already causing a lot of trouble in the journalism community, including a proposal to make the Twitter profile certification badge available to anyone willing to pay a monthly fee. The fear, of course, is that the new policy will make it harder to identify reliable sources of information on the site. Musk, on the other hand, seems to want to diversify the company’s revenue, rather than relying on advertiser interest in the site.

The misunderstanding seems to be fundamental. If the site is free for users, it is because we are not its customers, but rather the product. Our attention, our time, our personal data, in other words, we are being sold to Twitter’s real customers, the private companies that place ads there for us to consume their products.

So that the attention paid to the platform increases, and therefore its market value with it, all means are good. This is why our curiosity, our creativity, our passions, but also our anger, our conflicts, our division or our confusion are also part of what Twitter cultivates and then sells.

The neologism angry farming — here we suggest “ragiculture” — describes a manipulative tactic aimed at inciting outrage in an effort to increase online traffic and engagement. This illustrates particularly well what has been, all too often, Twitter’s business model over the years. There have always been great problems, even an irony, in allowing a private company to play the role of the agora, the pillar of democratic life. We feel it this week perhaps more than ever.

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