Veteran developer Chris Weatherell built the retweet button for Twitter, which was later copied as the ‘share’ feature on Facebook, and ‘forward’ on whatsapp. Today, he regrets creating it.
Initially, the retweet was meant to be a way to quickly share information about emergencies or to quote Weatherell, ‘to be used in situations which were positive, and showed humanity in its best light’.
But this idealistic thinking has withered, and the retweet is not just about putting power for good in people’s hands. It is about putting the gun in the hands of a mob.
The question we need to ask is ‘what is being shared?’ Very often, it is content fueled by hate, propaganda or spreading of misinformation.
Sharing or retweeting absolves us of the responsibility of composing and sending out something in our own name. It can be done mindlessly, and we can share something libelous because we don’t like the person being addressed. It also encourages extreme, polarizing content from the fringe, from people who want to be amplified. For example, it leads to spread of fake news.
What is the answer? Some solutions being explored include – curation of audiences, retweet limit, and forcing people to comment when retweeting. But the fact remains – social media platforms have little power to curate. Algorithms will win, and when algorithms favor the beast of popularity, popularity will win, even over sanity and reason.