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Why Twitter altruism in Covid second wave gives us hope for social media

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twitter covidPeople have collated resources and connected patients to hospital beds, stepping in to fill the gaping hole left by the Indian state’s ineptitude. It has been a little bit of a miracle.

Written by Atish Padhy

The Covid-19 pandemic has given us several painful images in the last two years. During the first wave, the image that stayed with us was of migrant workers walking inhuman distances in the wake of an arbitrary national lockdown.

During the second wave, the enduring image has been that of our social media feeds awash with desperate calls for help. Yet, amidst the shortage of critical medical equipment and the overflowing of cremation grounds, one cannot help but be struck by the great altruism and activism of thousands of regular social media users.

People have collated resources and connected patients to hospital beds, stepping in to fill the gaping hole left by the Indian state’s ineptitude. It has been a little bit of a miracle.

But how has Twitter (and the larger social media ecosystem), which at the best of times appears to bring out the worst in people, managed to incentivise strangers to go out of their way to help each other? How have the same platforms that often feel fundamentally inhuman become the great beacon of humanity?

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I have arrived at two possible explanations for this. The first has to do with the fundamental nature of human beings, which, contrary to popular belief, drives them to be altruistic in the face of crisis instead of being exploitative. This is the premise of Humankind: A Hope History, a fascinating new book by Rutger Bregman. The second has to do with the “orality” of Twitter.

Orality refers to the quality of specific kinds of verbal expression. Used in sociology to describe communication patterns in cultures where writing is unfamiliar or limited in use, the concept also has significant implications in communication studies and politics. It helps us understand that the medium of communication (oral/written) has psychological and social consequences, incentivising certain behaviours and values over others, eventually creating a “culture” that embodies these values.

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The work of cultural historian Walter J Ong, media theorist Marshall McLuhan and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci helps us identify the defining characteristics of oral and written cultures. Before the invention of mass print technologies, writing was a rare skill, and almost everything of value was retained in human memory. Thus, oral communication, by definition immediate and transient, had to be “memorable”.

Techniques employed to enhance memorability, such as rhythm, repetition, wit and rhetoric, became deeply entrenched in the larger culture. Even today, despite the proliferation of print and electronic technologies all around, great oratory continues to arrest us. Invariably, great orators use the techniques noted above (think Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech).

Given the close link between emotions and memory, a culture of orality tends to be conversational and interpersonal. It enables the creation of a shared sense of community between listeners and speakers and is better suited for the communication of emotions than complex ideas. On the flip side, the inherent need to be memorable means that oral communication tends to be antagonistic and simplistic, rarely dwelling in details (because then it begins to become monotonous) and often lacks nuance.

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Meanwhile, written and print communication is less dependent on memorability, given that it exists on literal or metaphorical (like the internet) “paper”, which can always be referred back to. Unlike oral communication, writing is not immediate and ephemeral. It enables complex ideas to be communicated effectively without reducing them to their most emotional and simplistic form.

There is more “room” for nuance in writing, as one can afford not to be rhetorical. Thus, the spread of writing and print culture has more fundamental effects on the human psyche by incentivising particular cognitive abilities over others. The work of media theorist Neil Postman helps us better understand how this might be so.

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In Amusing Ourselves to Death, he writes, “almost all of the characteristics we associate with the mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; and abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.”

Despite its virtues, written communication is somewhat unnatural. Mass print culture and the universality of writing are relatively recent phenomena in the history of humankind. It is orality that comes most naturally to human beings. Yet, writing has become ubiquitous because it solves the fundamental hurdle of scale in human communication.

Given its transient nature, oral communication cannot reach many people and is effective in communicating emotional content to a small number of people. Broadcast technologies like radio provide speech with a much larger reach, but only by compromising real-time interactivity, characteristic of orality.

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Indeed, what makes oral communication memorable and powerful is the high degree of listener participation and interactivity. In this regard, radio is a lot more like writing (little real-time interactivity) than regular speech. Walter Ong calls this secondary orality. Consequently, while the radio is a lot less effortful to consume than a book, the passivity of the medium means that it is not as powerful a medium for creating intimacy or antagonism as can be expected from an oral medium. For the longest time, the tradeoff between interactivity and reach thus seemed inevitable. And then social media was born.

Consider Twitter. Despite being a text-first microblogging platform, it displays all the fundamental characteristics of orality. As pointed out by Zeynep Tufekci, the immediate, ephemeral nature of interaction on social media closely resembles oral communication. Remember that oral communication, especially in preliterate cultures, was simplistic and rhetorical in its subject matter because of the inherent need for memorability. On Twitter, meanwhile, the creation of simplistic and rhetorical content is incentivised by the character limit of tweets and the sheer volume of content on one’s feed. The slow, careful process central to creating a written work is absent on Twitter, with people using the medium as a public record of their stream of consciousness.

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This framework helps explain why polarising content is rewarded by Twitter’s algorithm while also explaining how it can become a powerful lifeline at times of crisis. The orality of the platform facilitates the communication of emotional content, thus incentivising users to post angry, antagonistic, and, at times, panic-inducing tweets. Much of Twitter is full of sentences that would be at home in a private, oral argument before one has had the time or energy to process information slowly and allow nuance to take hold.

But this very incentive structure is valuable in times of crisis. The cascading of panic-inducing tweets that are generally harmful can save lives. Similarly, the psychological consequences of orality also tell us that antagonism and vileness is only a part of the whole picture. Like in-person oral communication, social media is adept at creating a sense of community and shared identity.

Indeed, within the larger cesspools of fake news and hate speech, countless communities thrive on social media, often held together by strong emotional reactions to certain sociopolitical and interpersonal events. The power, and many of its challenges, stem from its ability to marry the intimacy and interactivity of orality to the scalability of print and broadcast communication (and then multiply it manifold).

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This shared sense of community that can be scaled up massively reaching thousands, if not millions of people, is at the heart of networked mass movements, such as Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution and the Arab Spring. In many ways, Indian social media’s altruistic response to the Covid-19 crisis gives us adequate reason to be optimistic about human psychology, communication and, above all, social media.

The writer works at Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru

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TWITTER

Elon Musk Says He’ll Pay $11 Billion in Taxes in 2021 But Twitter Wants ‘Proof’

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Elon Musk took to Twitter to clarify once and for all that he will be paying a whopping $11 billion as taxes this year.

If the number of times Elon Musk could count when someone has asked him to pay the full taxes, he would be a very rich..wait, never mind. The Tesla boss is rich beyond any private individual has been in history, reports said.

Musk has increasingly been facing criticism from many politicians and many others who insist he has not been paying taxes as compared to the profits his companies have been making. On Sunday, the SpaceX CEO took to Twitter to share that he will be paying a whopping $11 billion as taxes.

For those wondering, I will pay over $11 billion in taxes this year— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 20, 2021

But some of the questions did not stop. One person tweeted how they needed to see Musk’s tax returns while yet another asked how much percentage was that of his total income.

A few were, however scathing of the government who thought they will add that amount to their pockets rather than using it for some proper development.

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Wow that’s enough to give each person in the world almost $2 million but instead the government will just stick it in their pockets— greg (@greg16676935420) December 20, 2021

Why not $200 billion? Asking for a Senator— litquidity (@litcapital) December 20, 2021

Earlier this week, Democratic US Senator Elizabeth Warren has tweeted to say that Musk should pay taxes and stop “freeloading off everyone else” after Time magazine named him its “person of the year”.

In response, Musk shot four tweets in which he said that the senator reminded him of a friend’s angry mom who yelled at everybody. He tweeted, ““And if you opened your eyes for 2 seconds, you would realize I will pay more taxes than any American in history this year.” “Don’t spend it all at once … oh wait you did already.”

He added further, “You remind me of when I was a kid and my friend’s angry Mom would just randomly yell at everyone for no reason.”

Musk responded by saying that he “will pay more taxes than any American in history this year”. This Twitter exchange left netizens divided as even though many supported Warren and agreed that Musk should pay more taxes, others felt that he was already doing enough.

Musk’s Tesla is worth about $1 trillion. Over the last few weeks, he has sold nearly $14 billion worth of Tesla shares.

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The Tesla boss has been pushing for his colonize Mars agenda for years now, and has made it very clear in some occasions that he would rather spend the money on putting humanity on the red planet, than pay his taxes. “My plan,” the SpaceX founder tweeted about his fortune, “is to use the money to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness.”

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Twitter Admits Policy ‘Errors’ After Far-Right Abuse Its New Rules of Posting Pictures

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Twitter’s new picture permission policy was aimed at combating online abuse, but US activists and researchers said Friday that far-right backers have employed it to protect themselves from scrutiny and to harass opponents.

Even the social network admitted the rollout of the rules, which say anyone can ask Twitter to take down images of themselves posted without their consent, was marred by malicious reports and its teams’ own errors.

It was just the kind of trouble anti-racism advocates worried was coming after the policy was announced this week.

Their concerns were quickly validated, with anti-extremism researcher Kristofer Goldsmith tweeting a screenshot of a far-right call-to-action circulating on Telegram: “Due to the new privacy policy at Twitter, things now unexpectedly work more in our favor.”

“Anyone with a Twitter account should be reporting doxxing posts from the following accounts,” the message said, with a list of dozens of Twitter handles.

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Gwen Snyder, an organizer and researcher in Philadelphia, said her account was blocked this week after a report to Twitter about a series of 2019 photos she said showed a local political candidate at a march organized by extreme-right group Proud Boys.

Rather than go through an appeal with Twitter she opted to delete the images and alert others to what was happening.

“Twitter moving to eliminate (my) work from their platform is incredibly dangerous and is going to enable and embolden fascists,” she told AFP.

In announcing the privacy policy on Tuesday, Twitter noted that “sharing personal media, such as images or videos, can potentially violate a person’s privacy, and may lead to emotional or physical harm.”

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But the rules don’t apply to “public figures or individuals when media and accompanying Tweets are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse.”

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By Friday, Twitter noted the roll out had been rough: “We became aware of a significant amount of coordinated and malicious reports, and unfortunately, our enforcement teams made several errors.”

“We’ve corrected those errors and are undergoing an internal review to make certain that this policy is used as intended,” the firm added.

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Jack Dorsey Post Twitter Is Chasing His Crypto, Fintech Dream

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At a packed Miami conference in June, Jack Dorsey, mused in front of thousands of attendees about where his real passion lay: “If I weren’t at Square or Twitter, I’d be working on Bitcoin.”

On Monday, Dorsey made good on one part of that, announcing he would leave Twitter for the second time, handing the CEO position to a 10-year veteran at the firm. The 45-year-old entrepreneur, who is often described as an enigma with varied interests from meditation to yoga to fashion design, plans to pursue his passion which include focusing on running Square and doing more philanthropic work, according to a source familiar with his plan.

Well before the surprise news, Dorsey had laid the groundwork for his next chapter, seeding both companies with cryptocurrency-related projects.

Underlying Dorsey’s broader vision is the principle of “decentralisation,” or the idea that technology and finance should not be concentrated among a handful of gatekeepers, as it is now, but should, instead, be steered by the hands of the many, either people or entities.

The concept has played out at Square, which has built a division devoted to working on projects and awarding grants with the aim of growing Bitcoin’s popularity globally. Bitcoin price in India stood at Rs. 44.52 lakh as of 12:50pm IST on December 1.

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Dorsey has been a longtime proponent of Bitcoin, and the appeal is that the cryptocurrency will allow for private and secure transactions with the value of Bitcoin unrelated to any government.

The idea has also underpinned new projects at Twitter, where Dorsey tapped a top lieutenant – and now the company’s new CEO Parag Agrawal – to oversee a team that is attempting to construct a decentralised social media protocol, which will allow different social platforms to connect with one another, similar to the way email providers operate.

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The project called Bluesky will aim to allow users control over the types of content they see online, removing the “burden” on companies like Twitter to enforce a global policy to fight abuse or misleading information, Dorsey said in 2019 when he announced Bluesky.

Bitcoin has also figured prominently at both of his companies. Square became one of the first public companies to own Bitcoin assets on its balance sheet, having invested $220 million (roughly Rs. 1,650 crore) in the cryptocurrency.

In August, Square created a new business unit called TBD to focus on Bitcoin. The company is also planning to build a hardware wallet for Bitcoin, a Bitcoin mining system, as well as a decentralised Bitcoin exchange.

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Twitter allows users to tip their favourite content creators with Bitcoin and has been testing integrations with non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a type of digital asset that allows people to collect unique digital art.

Analysts see the transition as a positive signal for Square, the fintech platform he co-founded in 2009. Square’s core Cash App, after a bull run in its share in 2020, has experienced slower growth in the most recent quarter. It is also trying to digest the $29 billion (roughly Rs. 2,17,240 crore) acquisition of Buy Now Pay Later provider Afterpay, its largest acquisition ever.

But these ambitions will not pay off until years from now, analysts cautioned.

“The blockchain platform they’re trying to develop is great but also fraught with technical challenges and difficult to scale for consumers. I think he’ll focus more on Square and crypto will be part of that,” said Christopher Brendler, an analyst at DA Davidson.

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© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Interested in cryptocurrency? We discuss all things crypto with WazirX CEO Nischal Shetty and WeekendInvesting founder Alok Jain on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

Cryptocurrency is an unregulated digital currency, not a legal tender and subject to market risks. The information provided in the article is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, trading advice or any other advice or recommendation of any sort offered or endorsed by NDTV. NDTV shall not be responsible for any loss arising from any investment based on any perceived recommendation, forecast or any other information contained in the article.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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