Twitter in 2022: 5 essential reads about the consequences of Elon Musk’s takeover of the microblogging platform
You’d be forgiven for becoming numb to the near-daily onslaught of news proclaiming the latest astonishing development involving Elon Musk’s tenure as owner and manager of Twitter.
The microblogging platform has seen an increase in hate speech and technical problems, as media reports say up to 75% of staff have been cut since he took over.
In December 2022, disturbing news about Twitter included the dissolution of the company’s Trust and Safety Board, the conspiracy theories and scoring of the “Twitter Files”, QAnon’s Musk-inspired revival, the suspension of the Twitter accounts of journalists who criticized the company cover, included, and a brief ban on links to competing social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Mastodon.
Under these headings lie crucial questions about the nature, role and state of social media in society. Following Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, The Conversation published several articles exploring these issues.
These articles from our archive look at the effects of content management, the dangers of misinformation about COVID-19, Twitter’s underappreciated nature as a data source, Black Twitter’s important role in social justice movements, and the difficulties of starting over in A post-Twitter world.
Free speech, prejudice and manipulation
One of Musk’s stated motivations for buying Twitter was to address his claim that the platform was biased against figures on the right. Musk offered no data to support this.
Twitter’s own researchers, who had access to data not available outside the company, found the opposite to be the case – the platform is biased in favor of right-wing voices.
At the time, Musk said he made his pitch for the company that he intended to make Twitter a platform for free speech, and that free speech on Twitter was stifled by excessive content moderation.
Again, research shows that the opposite is the case. To the extent that Twitter is an arena for free speech, it is an arena that is readily manipulated. “Astroturf” causes, trolling and misinformation are facilitated by bots and malicious users who appear to be the digital equivalent of mobs rallying around manufactured outrage.
Indiana University social media researcher Filippo Menczer found that this manipulation has become sophisticated, with coordinated networks of users and bots manipulating Twitter’s algorithms to artificially increase or decrease the popularity of content. Twitter has tried to rein in these abuses through content moderation in recent years, and weakening these moderation policies “could allow abuse to run rampant again,” he wrote.
Medical misinformation unbound
In November 2022, Twitter quietly posted notice that it would no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation. The fight against medical misinformation on social media has been an uphill battle, and the outcome has life-and-death consequences.
Michigan State University social media researcher Anjana Susarla noted that social media facilitates the spread of misinformation and amplifies content likely to cause heightened emotions. There is substantial evidence that misinformation on social media reduces vaccine uptake and makes it more difficult for society to achieve herd immunity, she wrote.
Another problem is that what happens on Twitter doesn’t stay on Twitter. Antivaccine content and medical misinformation “generally can spill over to other online platforms,” hampering those platforms’ efforts to combat misinformation, Susarla wrote.
Diamonds in the mud
As Twitter degrades and breaks down, there is a possibility that the platform, at least in pre-Musk form, could disappear. While few are likely to lament the loss of a playground for trolls and a breeding ground for misinformation, Susarla spelled out some of the unique and valuable services that Twitter provided.
Every public tweet is archived and accessible, providing a treasure trove of data on collective human behavior. This data is very valuable to researchers and policy makers, she wrote. For example, public health researchers have found associations between tweeting about HIV and incidence of HIV, and with geotagged tweets, researchers are able to assess the health of people in specific neighborhoods.
Twitter has also been an important arena for crowdsourcing, Susarla noted. For example, during natural disasters and other emergencies, Twitter has been “a great place for human-sourced eyewitness data,” she wrote. And Twitter has been invaluable in the field of open source intelligence (OSINT), “especially for the detection of war crimes.” Twitter has also been invaluable as a venue for crowdsourcing about another kind of threat: police brutality, especially against black people. In 2018, 28% of Twitter’s users in the US were black, and about 1 in 5 Black Americans were on Twitter, according to Nielsen.
This digital community on Twitter, called Black Twitter, circulates topics, stories and images that directly relate to and affect the Black community, noted Emerson College communication scholar Deion Scott Hawkins. Twitter in particular is often used to document and upload videos of police brutality. “For example, the video of George Floyd’s death in police custody was first published on Twitter, and then mainstream news spread the footage,” he wrote.
Losing Black Twitter would mean the loss of robust, fast and authentic information sharing about police brutality within the Black community, Hawkins noted. “Black Twitter and the information it provides is literally a matter of life and death,” he wrote.
Pack your bags, but where?
The changes that Twitter is undergoing have prompted many people to leave the platform, and more to consider it. The potential depopulation of the social media platform is a scenario University of Colorado Boulder information science researcher Casey Fiesler has seen and studied before.
There is “essentially no chance” that the majority of Twitter users could simply move to another platform and resume business as usual, she noted. Migrating to another platform is an uphill battle. “When social media platforms fall, sometimes the online communities that have made their homes there disappear, and sometimes they pack their bags and move to a new home,” she wrote.
Previous social media platform migrations have shown the challenges: content loss, fragmented communities, fractured social networks and shifting community norms, according to Fiesler. “But Twitter is not one community, it is a collection of many communities, each with its own norms and motivations,” she wrote. “Some communities may be able to migrate more successfully than others.”