Twitter's new advertising tool will turn it into a dystopian nightmare

...just like it did to Facebook.

It begins harmlessly enough. You're chatting to a friend, a neighbour perhaps, over the garden fence. The conversation turns to her upcoming wedding. What would she like for a present?

Suddenly a giant box of toasters falls from the sky, landing with a crunch between you. You can no longer see your friend. You start to scramble over the debris, the crushed cat, to find her - is she ok? - but then something small and hard hits you right in the eye. You pick it up: it's a diamond ring. Then another hits you in the back of the head. You're under attack!

You start to run, leaping over fences and through conservatories, but you know you're being chased. Hunted. A guy pops out from behind a tree with a megawatt smile: "Looking to buy some trainers?"

"Get away!" you scream, desperately weaving round him.

"Get away from it all!" a voice from nowhere booms in your ear.

You jump. Where the hell is it coming from? Is it IN YOUR HEAD? You hear it again, ingratiating now, soft, a warm current in the frosty air. 

"A Thompson holiday is only a click away."

And so it begins. Twitter is getting a new API, or “application-programming interface”, a technology which will make it easier for advertisers to reach the right customers. In other words Twitter is getting what Facebook got back in 2010. Advertisers will be able to access information you release in the course of social interaction, and use it to sell you things.

This makes sense for Twitter, for now. It has a great product, (after all, all decisions have hitherto be made with customer experience in mind) and now it wants to make some proper money.

Here's the FT on the financial benefits of the move:

A similar technology launched by Facebook in 2010 helped that social network reach more than $3bn in revenues the following year, with analysts estimating the system currently generates roughly 60 per cent of the company’s revenues.

eMarketer estimates that with the new venture Twitter's revenue will grow 90 per cent this year to $545m, and that  it will earn over than $800m next year in global ad revenue.

But what of the product itself? Twitter spokespeople insist the user experience will be uninterrupted "in the short term" - users may not see that many more ads - but that's not the whole point. The really damaging aspect of the new advertising development, I'd argue, is that it'll allow ad companies to "target" their marketing.

"Because we have a robust listening solution and engagement solution, we can listen to what people are saying [on Twitter about a brand] and engage with them and take any of their tweets and promote them," s Salesforce Marketing Cloud's  Michael Lazerow told ADweek.

But social media sites are a great deal about trust - you are downloading a large amount of subtle personal information (you can't help it, you're socialising) - and it's an uneasy feeling that cynical sharks are circling, trying to make money out of it.

You get too much of this on twitter anyway. Tabloid journalists haunt the edges, looking for someone famous to make a a false step which they can use out of context. Now imagine what would happen if everyone's witterings were that lucrative.

But we don't really have to imagine - we have Facebook. Since its 2010 marketing drive the site has been haemorraging users (it lost more than $50bn after last year's stockmarket crash), and those still on it squirrel away that valuable personal information, using it mostly to arrange social events via private messaging.

So what today's Twitter news really means is that another great social networking site has peaked and is on the way down. Plus ça change.

Looks so innocent. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.