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What the World Would Lose With the Demise of Twitter: Valuable Eyewitness Accounts and Raw Data on Human Behaviour, as Well as a Habitat for Trolls

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What do a cybersecurity researcher building a system to generate alerts for detecting security threats and vulnerabilities, a wildfire watcher who tracks the spread of forest fires, and public health professionals trying to predict enrolment in health insurance exchanges have in common? They all rely on analysing data from Twitter.

Twitter is a microblogging service, meaning it’s designed for sharing posts of short segments of text and embedded audio and video clips. The ease with which people can share information among millions of others worldwide on Twitter has made it very popular for real-time conversations.

Whether it is people tweeting about their favourite sports teams, or organisations and public figures using Twitter to reach a mass audience, Twitter has been part of the collective record for over a decade.

The Twitter archives allow for instant and complete access to every public tweet, which has positioned Twitter both as a archive of collective human behaviour and as a credentialing and fact-checking service on a global scale.

As a researcher who studies social media, I believe that these functions are very valuable for academics, policymakers and anyone using aggregate data to obtain insights into human behaviour.

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The proliferation of scams and brand impersonators, the haemorrhaging of advertisers, and disarray within the company call the future of the platform into question. If Twitter were to go under, the loss would reverberate around the world.

With its massive trove of tweets, Twitter has provided new ways to quantify public discourse and new tools to map aggregate perceptions, and offers a window into large-scale human behaviour. Such digital traces or records of human activity allow researchers in fields ranging from social sciences to healthcare to analyse a variety of phenomena.

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From open source intelligence to citizen science, Twitter has not only been a digital public square, but has also allowed researchers to infer attitudes that are difficult to detect through methods from traditional field research.

For example, people’s willingness to pay for policies and services that address climate change has traditionally been measured through surveys of subjective well-being.

Twitter sentiment data gives researchers and policymakers another tool for assessing these attitudes in order to take more meaningful action on climate change.

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Researchers in public health have found an association between tweeting about HIV and incidence of HIV, and have been able to measure sentiment at the neighbourhood level to assess the overall health of the people in those neighbourhoods.

Geotagged data from Twitter helps in a variety of fields such as urban land use and disaster resilience. Being able to identify the locations for a set of tweets allows researchers to correlate information in the tweets with times and places – for example, correlating tweets and ZIP codes to identify hot spots of vaccine hesitancy.

Twitter has been invaluable in the field of open source intelligence (OSINT), particularly for tracking down war crimes. OSINT uses crowdsourcing to identify the locations of photos and videos.

In Ukraine, human rights investigators have focused on using Twitter and TikTok to search for evidence of abuses.

Open source intelligence has also been helpful for cutting through the fog of war. For example, OSINT analysts were quick to provide evidence that the missile that exploded in Przewodow, Poland near the Ukrainian border on November 15, 2022 was likely an S-300 antiaircraft missile and unlikely a ballistic or cruise missile fired by Russia.

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Although misinformation has been disseminated far and wide on Twitter, the platform also serves a role as a global verification mechanism. First, vast numbers of people use Twitter and other social media platforms.

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With crowdsourcing writ large, social media assumes the role of an authoritative information provider, reducing some of the uncertainty people face in searching for new information. The platforms perform a credentialing role that some scholars refer to as “public relevance algorithms,” in that they have replaced dedicated business or technical expertise in identifying what people need to know.

Another way has been official credentialing. Prior to Elon Musk’s takeover, Twitter’s verification method provided public figures with a blue check mark on their profiles, which served as a shortcut in establishing whether a source of a tweet was who the person claimed to be.

While problems such as fake news, misinformation and hate speech exist, the credentialing ability coupled with the vast number of people who use the platform in real time made Twitter a provider of credible information and a fact-checker.

Twitter’s dual role in fostering real-time communication and acting as an arbitrator of authoritative information is of crucial interest to academics, journalists and government agencies. During the pandemic, for example, many public health agencies turned to Twitter to promote behaviour that mitigates the risk of infection.

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During disasters and emergencies, Twitter has been a great venue for crowdsourced eyewitness data.

During Hurricane Harvey, for example, researchers found that that users responded and interacted the most with tweets from verified Twitter accounts, and especially from government organisations.

Official Twitter accounts helped in the rapid dissemination of information during a water contamination crisis in West Virginia. Twitter data has also helped in hurricane evacuations.

Twitter has also been an important way for people with disabilities to participate in public discourse.

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Twitter’s real value has been in enabling people to connect with each other in real time and as an archive of collective behaviour.

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Recognising this, international organisations, government agencies and local governments have invested significant resources in using Twitter and have come to rely on the platform. Sen. Edward Markey has described Twitter as “essential” to American society. If Twitter were to collapse, there’s no clear replacement in sight.


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Meta Oversight Board Calls for Overhaul of ‘Cross-Check’ Programme That Prioritises VIP Users

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Meta Platforms’ Oversight Board recommended on Tuesday that the company revamp its system exempting high-profile users from its rules, saying the practice privileged the powerful and allowed business interests to influence content decisions.

The arrangement, called cross-check, adds a layer of enforcement review for millions of Facebook and Instagram accounts belonging to celebrities, politicians and other influential users, allowing them extra leeway to post content that violates the company’s policies.

Cross-check “prioritises users of commercial value to Meta and as structured does not meet Meta’s human rights responsibilities and company values,” Oversight Board director Thomas Hughes said in a statement announcing the decision.

The board had been reviewing the cross-check programme since last year, when whistleblower Frances Haugen exposed the extent of the system by leaking internal company documents to the Wall Street Journal.

Those documents revealed that the programme was both larger and more forgiving of influential users than Meta had previously told the Oversight Board, which is funded by the company through a trust and operates independently.

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Without controls on eligibility or governance, cross-check sprawled to include nearly anyone with a substantial online following, although even with millions of members it represents a tiny slice of Meta’s 3.7 billion total users.

In 2019, the system blocked the company’s moderators from removing nude photos of a woman posted by Brazilian soccer star Neymar, even though the post violated Meta’s rules against “nonconsensual intimate imagery,” according to the WSJ report.

The board at the time of the report rebuked Meta for not being “fully forthcoming” in its disclosures about cross-check.

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In the opinion it issued on Tuesday, the board said it agreed that Meta needed mechanisms to address enforcement mistakes, given the extraordinary volume of user-generated content the company moderates each day.

However, it added, Meta “has a responsibility to address these larger problems in ways that benefit all users and not just a select few.”

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It made 32 recommendations that it said would structure the programme more equitably, including transparency requirements, audits of the system’s impact and a more systematic approach to eligibility.

State actors, it said, should continue to be eligible for inclusion in the programme, but based only on publicly available criteria, with no other special preferences.

The Oversight Board’s policy recommendations are not binding, but Meta is required to respond to them, normally within 60 days.

A spokeswoman for the Oversight Board said the company had asked for and received an extension in this case, so it would have 90 days to respond.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Facebook Dating Will Allow Users to Verify Their Age Using AI Face Scanning, Meta Says

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Meta on Monday announced that it has introduced a new method for users to verify their age on its Facebook Dating service. Facebook is experimenting with methods, such as using an AI face scanner, to allow users of the platform’s dating service to verify their age.

Meta announced in a blog post that it would start prompting users on Facebook Dating to verify that they’re over 18 if the platform suspects a user is underage.

Users can then verify their age by sharing a selfie video that Facebook shares with a third-party business or by uploading a copy of their ID. According to Meta, the company, Yoti, uses facial cues to determine a user’s age without identifying them.

Meta says the new age verification systems will help stop children from accessing features meant for adults. It doesn’t appear that there are any requirements for adults to verify their age on Facebook Dating.

The US social media giant has used Yoti for other age verification purposes, including vetting Instagram users who attempt to change their birthdate to make them 18 or older.

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However, according to a report by The Verge, the system isn’t equally accurate for all people: Yoti’s data shows that its accuracy is worse for “female” faces and people with darker complexions.

Last year, Instagram announced that it had started prompting users to fill in their birthday details. The prompts could initially be dismissed but the social media giant eventually made it compulsory for users who wanted to continue using Instagram. The prompts were designed to ascertain how old users were on Instagram and prevent content that isn’t suitable for young people to appear on their feed. At the time, Instagram had stated that the information is necessary for new features it was developing to protect young people.

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WhatsApp Beta Update Adds ‘Picture-in-Picture’ Support During Video Calls for iOS Testers: Report

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WhatsApp has reportedly begun testing the ability to use ‘picture-in-picture’ (PIP) mode during video calls on iOS. The Meta-owned messaging app continues to develop new features for the popular messaging app, and is rolling out a new update for its beta testers on iOS that will add the feature to use other apps and multitask while video calling via WhatsApp, according to a feature tracker. ‘Picture-in-picture’ mode isn’t new to WhatsApp for iOS — it already supports the feature when playing media shared from websites like YouTube and Facebook.

According to a report from WhatsApp feature tracker WABetaInfo, select users part of the TestFlight beta program will receive the feature as part of the update to version 22.24.0.79 on iOS. A screengrab on the website shows the ability to multitask with other apps during an ongoing video call on WhatsApp. The video call window can be temporarily hidden as well. Users who have received the update can check if they have received the feature by trying to use a different app while placing a video call.

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A screenshot of the picture-in-picture mode in action shared by the feature tracker

Photo Credit: WABetaInfo

The report states that the PIP feature is working on iOS 16.1 or above, with previous versions not yet supported despite being compatible with the update. “Note that, even if this feature is compatible with iOS 15 and newer versions of iOS, we have no evidence that it is also enabled for users on iOS 15 at the moment,” WABetaInfo said. The update should soon be available for the wider user base as well.

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The new update to beta version 22.24.0.79 follows a slew of WhatsApp updates on the iOS platform. Most recently, iOS beta testers received a ‘search by date’ feature that let users search specific messages by date within a chat, adding a calendar icon in the search option.

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WhatsApp users also received a ‘Message Yourself’ feature to send themselves reminders and take notes, the ability to include captions when forwarding media, and a voice note feature for status updates.

Probably the biggest feature added recently to the app on both iOS and Android was WhatsApp Polls, which let users create polls in both personal and group chats. The feature is also found on rival messaging services, like Telegram.


Apple launched the iPad Pro (2022) and the iPad (2022) alongside the new Apple TV this week. We discuss the company’s latest products, along with our review of the iPhone 14 Pro on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

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