What X’s move to hide our likes means for accountability

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This week, X, formerly known as Twitter, made likes private — meaning people can no longer see which users have liked posts. It’s a move the company says is aimed at improving privacy, however, experts say the change will harm the public’s ability to hold the powerful to account. 

Public likes on the social media platform were always a double-edged sword. They established a public record of every user’s interests and interactions. But they were also an occasional source of trouble for politicians, celebrities and even site owner Elon Musk, whose likes were frequently examined by journalists and the public.

“Likes were this really important and interesting way to understand the types of content those in power really consume and agree with,” said Liam McLaughlin, a communication and media lecturer at the University of Liverpool. 

“Removing this content is a poor move for democracy, some might argue.”

Politicians’ likes resulted in scandals

There have been numerous examples of politicians’ likes on X turning into scandals because they appeared to contradict their public stances.

This week, CNN reporters discovered that Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), a top candidate to run as Donald Trump’s vice-president, liked tweets in 2016 and 2017 that were highly critical of the former president, underlining his pivot from critic to close ally. 

In another infamous example, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) landed in hot water after his account liked a pornographic post in 2017. At the time, journalists and the public were quick to point out that in 2007, Cruz’s office unsuccessfully argued in favour of litigation seeking to ban sex toys, writing that masturbation had not been endorsed by the Supreme Court.

Cruz’s camp later said that the 2017 like was “reported to Twitter,” implying that the Senator did not like it himself. 

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With his $44-billion US takeover of Twitter done, Elon Musk has quickly moved to reshape the platform by firing top execs and promising more free speech. But questions remain about how moderation will work and if he can turn a profit.

Musk’s likes have been scrutinized by the media as well.

This week, LGBTQ+ news outlet Them reported that Musk’s like history included celebrations of bans on gender-affirming care for youth, a video cutting together Pride flags and Nazi imagery with the caption “It’s a cult,” and an edited image depicting transgender actor Elliot Page wearing a T-shirt saying “sterilize autistic children” instead of “protect trans kids.”

Before likes were made private, X director of engineering Haofei Weng posted that the change would let people like “edgy” content without fear. 

“[Musk’s] personal likes are really abhorrent,” said Samantha Cole, journalist and co-founder of technology news site 404Media who has reported on public figures’ problematic likes in the past.

“He has a history of demanding that his team change things to make him look good,” she said.

Last February, tech news site The Verge reported that Musk personally directed Twitter staff to create a system to boost his posts.

McLaughlin echoed this sentiment, saying the change to likes is just one part of a “pattern of slowly changing this platform into something Elon Musk wants.” 

In addition to making it more difficult to keep tabs on the powerful, McLaughlin says hiding likes also makes it harder to detect instances of manipulation or artificial engagement by bots without the ability to see which accounts have liked a post. 

Some may benefit

Cole noted that some communities might see a benefit from private likes — for example adult performers.

“Sex workers have a really hard time with being hidden by algorithms, and maybe this means that they’ll get a boost if more people are freely liking their content,” said Cole, who hosted a CBC podcast focusing on Montreal-based adult entertainment site Pornhub. 

Prior to making likes private, X clarified the site’s rules around posting explicit content for the first time, banning some types of content but endorsing consensual pornography.

After the change to hide likes was made, the company encouraged users to like more posts, saying it would make their “timeline better,” indicating that the algorithm could improve.

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Of course, some people were excited about having a little more privacy while browsing and liking posts. 

McLaughlin, however, said that there were “other platforms for that,” and that X has “always been a kind of a public square.”

Even with the change, Cole says users might still want to be cautious about what they like as X continues to go through numerous seismic shifts seemingly at the whim of its billionaire owner.

“You’re not required to like things if you’re worried about safety,” she said.



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