With the collapse of Twitter, traces of our history may disappear

An influential platform. Almost since its inception with the first tweet uploaded in 2006, Twitter has played an important role in global events. The social network has been used to document everything from the Arab Spring to the current war in Ukraine. He also captured our public conversations for years. Now, experts fear that if Elon Musk pulls back the curtain on the company, rich media and conversation lines will disappear forever. Given that the billionaire admitted to his employees, in a conference call on November 10, 2022, that the prospect of Twitter bankruptcy cannot be ruled out, the risk is very real and it is even imminent.

Elon Musk himself acknowledges that Twitter is a public forum and it is precisely this aspect that makes the potential downfall of the platform so important. Twitter has become an integral part of our civilization. It is a place where people document war crimes, discuss and debate important topics, and disclose or transmit information.

War in Ukraine, downing of flight MH17, death of bin Laden… Internet users get information on Twitter

On this platform we spoke for the first time of the American invasion that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden. This is also where Internet users learned about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That’s when the information about the crash of flight MH17 came out again. This is a Malaysia Airlines plane that was likely shot down by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine in 2014. Twitter is a living, breathing historical document. Experts and observers worry that it could disappear soon.


Since Elon Musk took it over, Twitter has lost nearly a million users

“If Twitter were to ‘disappear at dawn,’ all of this – any evidence of atrocities or potential war crimes – would disappear from the platform,” said Ciaran O’Connor, senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). The latter is a think tank that conducts work across the planet. Information gathered using open source intelligence, known as OSINT, has been used to support legal proceedings against alleged war crimes and to build a record of events long after the memories of the main characters have disappeared. . or observers.

According to Elise Thomas, a colleague of Ciaran O’Connor and senior OSINT analyst at ISD, the fact that the “digital public square” is built on the servers of a private company poses a unique challenge. of its kind. It’s a problem we’ll face many times over the next few decades, he believes: “This is probably the first really important test of it.”

Twitter is a goldmine of information

Twitter’s ubiquity, adoption by nearly a quarter of a billion users over the past 16 years, and status as a de facto public record have made it an information goldmine, Elise said. Thomas.

“In a sense, this represents a great opportunity for future historians: we have never had the ability to obtain so much data from an earlier period in history,” he explained. But this broad spectrum poses a major storage problem for structures.

For eight years, the US Library of Congress did the work of maintaining a public record of all tweets before stopping in 2018 by selecting and storing only messages from a small number of accounts. “It didn’t work,” said William Kilbride, executive director of the Digital Preservation Coalition. The data stored by the Library is too vast, the volume coming out of garden hoses too large. “Let me put this in context: this is the Library of Congress. They have some of the best expertise on this subject. If the Library of Congress can’t do this work, that tells you how big a point this is,” he added.

“Twitter has become a kind of news aggregator”

And that’s problematic because Twitter is full of valuable content from the past 16 years that could help future historians understand today’s world.

“In a way, Twitter has become a kind of news aggregator,” said Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat – an independent international group of researchers, investigators and journalists who use both open source surveys and social network – which helped bring those responsible for the downing of flight MH17 to justice. “A lot of what you see from the events in Ukraine are pictures that come from Telegram channels and then are shared by other people on Twitter.” The social network makes it easy to categorize and consume content from almost every country in the world by tapping into a real-time stream of information. They come from both large organizations and small independent voices. His absence will be truly felt.

Losing large volumes of information from the Internet is nothing new. In 2017, YouTube was criticized for hindering the work of investigators into alleged crimes against humanity in Syria as the platform removed accounts posting videos from Syrian cities. YouTube finally backed off after realizing the importance of its role as a host of historical information.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen to Elon Musk,” Eliot Higgins assumed. (Contacted, Elon Musk has not yet responded to our questions about whether he would ensure or help permanently store a history of messages posted on Twitter in the event of the platform’s bankruptcy. Twitter, as we indicated in previous articles, there is no longer a communications team after a massive wave of layoffs).

Is it possible to archive his tweets?

OSINT researchers aren’t the only ones who should be alarmed. The concern of US government agencies over losing their blue certification badge reflects the fact that many official statements from governments and public agencies are first made on Twitter. “There is no indication that official documents from government agencies have been archived or even how they could have done so,” said William Kilbride.


With Elon Musk taking over Twitter, employees and experts are worried about the future of the platform

Many tweeters have taken the initiative to back up their data themselves. The Internet Archive can also be used to permanently store snapshots of Twitter web pages somewhere more reliable than Twitter’s own servers. But these two methods can cause problems: often, in these methods, the multimedia is not stored in the same place as the archive of tweets – a problem which will affect for example a large number of account posting on Twitter photos and videos of the revolution in Iran or documenting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, in order to easily access the information, it will be necessary to know the exact url of a tweet. “You might have a hard time finding them if they haven’t been preserved somewhere on the internet,” says Eliot Higgins.

Some users rely on third-party services commonly used to make long Twitter threads more readable, such as Thread Reader. However, trying to turn them into archival tools is not a perfect solution either. “The companies behind these services are certainly smaller and more short-lived than Twitter itself and there is no reason to think that the content there will be preserved forever especially when Twitter disappears. , the economic model of companies that this unrolling Twitter thread is also disappearing.”, underlined Elise Thomas.

“There’s a good way to bring down the curtain”, pleads William Kilbride who asks that, if Twitter shuts down, Elon Musk doesn’t pull the plug immediately. “A managed and structured service closure should be preferred to the chaos we are currently experiencing,” he added.

Elise Thomas doesn’t have a good solution for dealing with this problem, and like much of Twitter today, the perspective isn’t exactly color, she says. “We would lose a lot of digital history if Twitter went down without warning.”

Article by Chris Stokel-Walker, translated from English by Kozi Pastakia.


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