It’s time to think about nationalising Twitter

If we can’t live without them, shouldn’t social networks be public utilities, rather than private companies?

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The first thing I did when I switched on my computer the other day – in fact, the first thing I’ve done every time I’ve switched on my computer in as long as I can remember –  was boot up Twitter. Only this time, I couldn’t.

I had locked myself out of my account. The phone number listed for the site's two-factor authentication was no longer my number. Shit, I thought. Shit, shit shit shit. The near-panic I felt from losing that connection surprised me: it turned out I was a junkie, and I had robbed myself of my fix. I was adrift, disconnected, cut off from the body cultural.

I am, I now freely admit, addicted to Twitter. And I’m not alone – 330 million monthly users send more than 500 million tweets per day, which works out at about 6,000 every second. According to the Pew Research Center, 74 per cent of users say the site is their main news source. But Twitter is a private company, run without accountable governance and for profit. Should that be the case? Or should we start to think of it as a vital public resource, and treat it accordingly?

It’s not only that the site is the chosen forum of most of the journalism industry: news happens on Twitter now, and you can take part in it in real time. Of the world’s leaders, 83 per cent are active on the platform. Without the ability Twitter gave him to broadcast directly to a global audience of millions, it is unlikely that Donald Trump would have won the US presidential election.

What makes one thing a public utility, and another not? Twitter has become a key part of the cultural landscape. It is almost impossible to imagine what public discourse would look like without it. It is the forum, the town square, the home of public conversation. It is also the chosen soapbox for the president of the United States, to the extent that when Trump blocks someone on Twitter it may have constitutional implications.

What if connection to Twitter is not a luxury, but a necessity? And if it is the latter, shouldn’t we be able to hold its governance accountable?

Both UK and US lawmakers have dragged social media executives in front of committees to explain themselves. Senior figures representing Twitter, Facebook and Google all expressed contrition when grilled by US Senators last November, but none of their chief executives – Jack Dorsey or Eric Schmidt or Mark Zuckerberg – even bothered to show up in person.

Twitter has long failed to address the abuse on its platform, in part because it has always struggled as a business and tackling abuse reports is an expensive undertaking. In February 2018, for the first time in its history, the company announced it was on track to make a modest profit by the end of the year. It has promised to plough that money back into dealing with malicious content, but it has no charter like the BBC, nor any regulatory framework compelling it to keep trolls under control.

Of course, the idea that something like Twitter could be nationalised is not much more than a thought experiment. For it to actually happen would require a sea change in the current culture of the Western world. And there is the question of who would administer it. Nationalising Twitter in its country of origin would hand it to the Trump administration, which would only satisfy a certain segment of the Twitterati. So how about internationalising it as a global public good? Perhaps only the United Nations would be in a position to do so.

In the end, my problem was one easily resolved by Twitter's customer support. And admittedly, had I been forced to instead call my local council (or the United Nations HQ in New York), it might not have been so simple. 

But as we begin to reassess the role of social media in our lives, and understand how much of our public discourse is controlled by an unelected and unaccountable Silicon Valley cabal, perhaps it is still an idea worth considering.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.