Left or right, no one can seem to quit Twitter

“There has to be incredible, demonstrated value to get people to move over,” said Joan Donovan, who studies social networks at Harvard University. “People have to think they’re going to get something special they can’t get anywhere else.” In the case of Parler, which benefited from a surge of new users after the 2020 election, Donovan said that special ingredient was a sense that they could say things they couldn’t on Twitter and Facebook.


“You had a really serious effort from sitting Republicans and right-wing journalists to get people to move over, promising special content, promising no censorship,” she added.

Right-wing accounts were never purged from Twitter to the degree that the sometimes overblown commentary suggests, though some high-profile users have been temporarily suspended for violating standards meant to protect transgender people from harassment or to stop the spread of vaccine misinformation, for instance.

What has happened is that conservatives have led a campaign to brand all attempts at content moderation — a practice akin to how online news organisations or private discussion forums choose what user comments to allow — as censorship.

Some have already predicted that Musk’s purchase won’t make Twitter all that much more unmanageable. Despite the company’s attempts to rein in the ugliest, inciting political rhetoric, there was never going to be a way to expunge it. Much of it remains, as do bullies and saboteurs, as Donovan discovered recently when she was teaching a class and searched for puppies as part of a demonstration about Twitter’s search function. To her shock, pornographic posts appeared, she said.

The way both ends of the partisan spectrum are perceiving the Musk deal probably oversimplifies the reality of what his leadership would do to the platform — not to mention how it could be a folly to predict the whims of an eccentric billionaire whose political views are rife with inconsistencies.

“A loss for people on the left, a win for people on the right — I think the extremes are overthinking this,” said Adam Sohn, CEO of the Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies the spread of ideological content online. “And Elon Musk is probably enjoying this,” he added.

One possibility for Twitter’s future that some progressive activists have talked up as Musk got closer to finalising his deal is that users on the left will quit en masse. There is little evidence that is happening in any significant way so far. As was the case with many Twitter denouncers on the right, the protests may be a lot of bluster.

“We anticipate that there is going to be an intensification of the Twitter-quit rage,” Sohn said. “Whether it turns into actual people leaving Twitter, that remains to be seen.”

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