For years Twitter has been the go-to social media platform for journalism and politics. However, it has also always been a deeply problematic platform rife with abuse, insults, and sheer nastiness.

This is of course an issue for all social media platforms on which users can hide behind a shield of anonymity but on Twitter the problems are exacerbated by the site’s format, the strict character limit ensuring that exchanges are conducted in the form of quips and one-liners, which all too often substitute unpleasantness, cruelty and bile for genuine wit.

This is a format which does not allow for nuance or qualification and the way in which the platform is constructed means that users can find themselves subjected to pile-ons in which their notifications are filled with insulting, vicious and abusive messages, many of which are simply malicious jibes and slurs of a personal nature which have little or no relevance to the user's tweet which sparked off the pile-on.

Even for individuals with robust mental health this kind of treatment can be deeply upsetting and damaging. For those who struggle with illness, depression or self-esteem issues, the experience can be traumatic.

The platform is designed to create addiction, with many users obsessively scrolling for likes and retweets. Twitter at best is informative and very funny, a means of keeping abreast of news stories as they break; at worst it is toxic and vile. But even when it is at its best, Twitter is quite simply kryptonite for anyone's mental health.

As a species we evolved to pay extra attention to potential threats, a trait which was vital for the survival of our remote ancestors. However translated into the world of social media this means that we pay little heed to the 99 positive or supportive responses to one of our tweets or comments, but obsess over the single negative one. This in turn has the consequence that being subjected to one of these pile-ons of insults and abuse can feel emotionally and mentally overwhelming.

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Twitter moderation was always patchy and poorly effective, but the problems inherent in the platform have only got worse since it was taken over by self-proclaimed free speech warrior Elon Musk, whose free speech absolutism does not apparently extend to criticism of Musk and his business practices or to tweets containing links to alternative platforms such as Mastodon.

Upon taking charge of Twitter, Musk eviscerated the platform's moderation team and restored the accounts of many users who had previously been banned for hate speech or for spreading misinformation about the 2020 US election or about vaccines and the covid pandemic.

Those who have had their accounts restored include racists, anti-Semites, white supremacists and those spreading conspiracy theories and hate speech.

Musk's US $44 billion takeover of the company provoked a mass exodus of staff from Twitter. Musk fired half of Twitter's staff and threatened to sack the remainder unless they pledged to work 'long hours at high intensity.' This led to the resignation of an additional 1200 staff.

Musk attempted a disastrous change to verified 'blue tick' accounts, allowing any user to purchase a blue tick for $8 per month. The blue tick had previously allowed users to be certain that a tweet really did originate from a high profile individual or company. This change immediately led to a rash of impersonators, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co. stopped showing ads on Twitter the day after an account impersonating the company, complete with a purchased blue tick mark, posted, "We are excited to announce insulin is free now." Following this another twelve large corporations ceased advertising on Twitter.

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The exodus of staff who have the knowledge and experience to keep the platform running, together with the restoration of accounts previously banned for unacceptable behaviour plus the virtual destruction of effective moderation have led many to fear for the future of the platform.

This week Musk ran a Twitter poll asking users if he should step down as head of Twitter, and promised to abide by the result, 57.5% of more than 17 million voters said he should go. However, Musk now seems to be looking for a get-out clause, replying, 'interesting' to a suggestion that the results of the poll were skewed by fake accounts.

Musk's tenure has been a disaster, but Twitter will not suddenly implode, however bugs, glitches and temporary outages will increase in number, the quality of what is available on the platform will deteriorate, misinformation will become rife, hateful and abusive tweets will increase in number and spread unchecked and users and advertisers will vote with their feet and quietly leave.

A recent report from Media Matters for America found that half of Twitter's top 100 advertisers appear to no longer be advertising on the website since Musk's takeover. 2023 could be the year in which one of the former giants of social media goes the same way as Myspace.

This piece is an extract from today’s REAL Scottish Politics newsletter, which is emailed out at 7pm every weekday with a round-up of the day's top stories and exclusive analysis from the Wee Ginger Dug.

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