Twitter controversy brings freedom of speech into question
Like most social media outlets at the inception, Twitter was launched in 2006 as a tool to be used to express oneself. Users were invited to say anything that could fit in the parameters of 140 characters, and interact with each other using the then-innovative hashtagging system pioneering by the cloud-based company.
As the years wore on and the service swelled in popularity, however, more logistics came into question – for instance, how were the people who ran Twitter supposed to make money without incorporating some basic advertising tactics into their everyday workflow? To that point, how would this new presence of revenue affect the levels of free speech users had on the service? Recently, this discussion has reached a head as Twitter continued to court potential advertisers to the point that their loyal, often obsessive users became annoyed with the company's policies.
How Twitter could curb free speech
According to a recent report from Wall Street Journal contributors Yoree Koh and Reed Albergotti, the death of Robin Williams was what spurred a removal of a Photoshopped image of the dead actor's body, which was sent to his grieving daughter's account. Twitter removed the image of its own volition after the image was flagged as offensive by a number of users, and allowed the immediate family of Williams to contact a special email to remove certain offensive images. There are users who have complained that this move, which the service said was done to "in order to respect the wishes of loved ones," is active censorship of the website.
Later in the same week, the service actively stamped out an image released of a beheaded American journalist, suspending accounts that perpetuated the imagery across the Internet. Following the murder of James Foley, a similar conversation arose – was Twitter censoring their users or making decisions in the best interest of the public? What's more, could the whole effort be chalked up to protecting their interest with existing and potential advertisers?
"Like its social-media brethren, Twitter tries to walk a fine line between a dedication to free expression, an aversion to being held legally responsible for the actions of its users, and the reality that people will use such platforms to share highly offensive material – a particular concern as it seeks to expand its advertising business," Koh and Albergotti wrote in their report.
So far, Twitter has been on the offensive about their moves to block certain content from the feed of their users, especially in the case of the Williams family.
How advertising changes the user experience
CNET reporter Ian Sherr wrote about the fallout of the company's decision to block certain content, and what this meant for the fundamental user experience. Originally, a feed on the website was completely user-driven – an account could "follow" as many other users as they pleased and would view their messages in chronological order. When advertising and sponsored hashtags became the norm, this altered slightly, and the occasional targeted Twitter ad could be spotted between followed content.
Following both the Foley and Williams incidents, the service is taking even more control over the newsfeed of any given user. In a recent statement on the official Twitter website, the service announced that it will algorithmically show users tweets they believe are relevant to them and automatically add them to a timeline.
"This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don't follow," the statement explained.
Though this change has only rolled out over the past week, it appears that account holders on the site are gradually losing the highly customizable interface Twitter once was, and backlash could be imminent.