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The grassroots effort to rescue Twitter from the grips of Wall Street (and internet trolls)

Could the social media platform look to the Associated Press as a model?

CREDIT: AP/Matt Rourke
CREDIT: AP/Matt Rourke

Let’s be honest: Twitter is a terrible place.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Founded in 2006, the microblogging service was unveiled as a shiny new online space where users of all stripes could share 140-character thoughts about their lives. Like many social media platforms, what started as a simple concept quickly transformed into a critical tool for activists and journalists, with Twitter playing a key role in Iran’s Green Revolution, the Arab Spring, and even U.S. presidential elections, among countless other global events. By the time the 2016 campaign season kicked off, Twitter had become an indispensable part of a modern journalist’s toolkit: writers even adjusted their practices to thrive in a social-media world.

But as Twitter has grown, so too has its list of serious issues — especially those that impact journalists, some of the platform’s most active users.

For starters, the Twitter is now the platform of choice for virtual abuse. Celebrities, politicians, and everyday people all regularly report harassment from followers, with relentless “trolls” spewing everything from anti-Semitism to racism. And while Twitter has taken steps to curb the hate, some journalists have quit the service in response to targeted campaigns of intimidation. Others are brainstorming ways to live without their feeds.

And while Twitter does suspend or ban especially vitriolic users like Milo Yiannopoulos, its enforcement is uneven at best. When President Donald Trump tweeted a video of himself beating an individual whose head was made to look like a CNN logo, for instance, journalists the world over decried it as an attack on the press, and pleaded with Twitter to hold Trump accountable to its terms of service. Twitter did nothing.

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The situation sometimes seems hopeless. Twitter has no real competitor, and even if it did, journalists — who often treasure their followers — are unlikely to jump ship to another service should it arise. And Twitter, ultimately, is a business, meaning it will likely always prioritize its bottom line over user experience — especially given its infamous financial woes.

But there is one possible way journalists could make things better: They could buy Twitter and run it themselves.

But there is one possible way journalists could make things better: They could buy Twitter and run it themselves.

The idea may sound far-fetched, but it already has some traction. In September 2016, author and academic Nathan Schneider published a piece in The Guardian floating the idea of transforming Twitter into a cooperative, meaning it would be owned by its users. The idea caught fire in the tech media circles and eventually coalesced into a full-scale #BuyTwitter campaign, complete with its own website.

By making Twitter a co-op, Schneider argues, users could change what it prioritizes — and, ideally, make it a more harmonious place.

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“The real value of the shared ownership is that you end up creating a company that isn’t totally driven by profits and crazy growth,” Schneider, a scholar-in-residence of media studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told ThinkProgress. “One of the most common early responses [to my piece] is that [a cooperatively owned Twitter] would get a real spam and abuse policy. It could be that a user-owned Twitter would have a higher priority on setting standards to protect users.”

“The real value of the shared ownership is that you end up creating a company that isn’t totally driven by profits and crazy growth.”

Schneider has popularized a vision where Twitter is handed over more or less directly to its millions of users. But the Buy Twitter website also includes an arguably more plausible scenario where the service is purchased and run by a consortium of media companies — that is, journalists.

In practice, this means major media organizations such as CNN, MSNBC, New York Times and even Fox News could team up with hundreds of smaller outlets to acquire the platform. The Buy Twitter website describes this hypothetical as a “consortium of public and private media companies” that would form a “Tweeters Trust” for the purchase. This entity would operate the service at-cost “as a common platform for reliable news gathering, circulation, and audience interaction,” and while member companies would gain special access to analytics and advertising tools, Twitter itself would still be commonly accessible to all.

“It has less populist appeal but it’s one that is quite reasonable, and quite appropriate given the role Twitter has come to play in the media ecosystem,” Schneider said of the plan.

“If you were to do it right, [you would] have an arrangement where, maybe, Breitbart is part of it too.”

There is some rough precedent here. Schneider noted journalism already has a wildly successful example: the Associated Press, which is cooperatively owned by its contributing newspapers, radio stations, and television networks in the United States.

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The key to a media co-op Twitter, Schneider says, is to find a way to involve as many media outlets as possible, regardless of their editorial slant.

“If you were to do it right, [you would] have an arrangement where, maybe, Breitbart is part of it too,” he said. “Fox News is a member of the Associated Press, but that doesn’t ruin the AP.”

This isn’t to say there aren’t major challenges to implementing this model. As with any co-op, it will be important to hash out how decisions are made, and whether smaller media companies would have just as much say as larger ones. The Associated Press had a tendency to exclude any news outlet that wasn’t part of its consortium early on in its history, resulting in antitrust lawsuits that went all the way to the Supreme Court — something a media-owned Twitter co-op would want to avoid.

“The challenge with Twitter, no matter who owns it, is going to be a balance between free speech and appropriate speech.”

Meanwhile, practical questions remain as to how Twitter would transition to being cooperatively owned, and Schneider warned against a version that bans or deletes anything controversial.

“If, for instance, CNN were a co-owner of Twitter and insisted [Trump’s tweet] be banned…that might not be a good thing,” he said. “The challenge with Twitter, no matter who owns it, is going to be a balance between free speech and appropriate speech.”

Regardless of whether or not media companies buy the service, Schneider and his supporters — who aren’t wedded to one model — have already started to convince some of Twitter’s shareholders to embrace a cooperatively owned structure. Earlier this year, nearly 5 percent of the company’s shareholders voted in favor of a proposal that would create a version of cooperative ownership, exceeding the 3 percent threshold needed to re-introduce the resolution next year. That might not sound like much, but in a company where huge portions of shares are owned by a small handful of people, it’s a surprising number.

“We were aiming for 3 percent,” he said, adding that the vote results were “a big win for us.”

No version of Twitter will be perfect. But transforming the service into a media-owned co-op might make things just a little bit better for users. It would also return Twitter to its roots as a publishing platform, putting it in the hands of those who publish the most: journalists.

“With a co-op, they get a chance for this company to be a real commons,” Schneider said.