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'Be careful of underestimating Musk's intentions'

Clemens Lampe
December 8, 2022

Since Elon Musk’s takeover, Twitter has become the subject of repeated criticism — both in the public eye and in many reports about the platform. Can the entrepreneur's vision keep up with his critics?

On the left half of the picture, slightly blurred in the background, the Twitter logo and in the right half of the picture, in focus in the foreground, Elon Musk with a sceptical expression on his face.
Everything new? A lot has changed since Musk took over TwitterImage: Dado Ruvic/REUTERS

In addition to Elon Musk’s rather confusing personnel policies, which include mass dismissals and fast-changing promotions and demotions, the criticism against Musk’s takeover of Twitter focuses largely on the fact that the social media channel is turning into a multiplier of disinformation due to a lack of regulation.

Besides the dismissal of the entire board of directors by Musk as the new owner, key players within the company are also increasingly quitting their position of their own volition. For example, Lea Kissner, Twitter’s head of information security, and Yoel Roth, the head of trust and security, have recently left the company.

Musk meanwhile announced his intention to promote citizen journalism while accusing what he referred to as the "media elite" of trying everything in their power to prevent the platform from changing.

But with so many changes taking place in such quick succession at Musk’s behest, many wonder what kind of relevance Twitter may still have in the future? Will the platform be reduced to an echo chamber of so-called "alternative facts?"

Dr. Zoetanya Sujon – University of the Arts London, she wears dark glasses
Dr Zoetanya Sujon - Senior Lecturer and Programme Director at the London College of CommunicationImage: privat

We spoke about this and other related topics with Dr Zoetanya Sujon, Senior Lecturer and Programme Director in Communications and Media at the London College of Communication.

'Hard to see Twitter as a reputable platform'

DW: Worldwide, many people get their daily news and information via social networks, not least Twitter. Elon Musk recently announced his intention to develop Twitter into a platform for "citizen journalism," which would mean a change of the platform from providing the mere infrastructure of communication and exchange to a becoming media outlet. With this new orientation, could Twitter become a real competitor to the established or — as Musk calls them "mainstream" – media?

Sujon: Given the huge cutbacks to Twitter's trust and safety department, content moderation, and its recent decision (on November 23) to stop enforcing any breaches to COVID misinformation, it is hard to see Twitter as a reputable platform for any kind of journalism.

It is well established that misinformation and hateful content is profitable for social platforms, so by gutting all of the work Twitter had put into place for quality control, it is heading toward becoming a main competitor for toxic culture.

Watch out, Gab and Truth Social; Twitter is now in the market for top place for center of misinformation, abuse and trolling.

Still relevant for journalists?

DW: Traditional media houses, journalists and related multipliers from civil society, academia and business have used Twitter as a relevant outlet for exchange within their respective disciplines in recent years. How do you think their output on the platform will be impacted if they continue to publish on Twitter?

Sujon: Historically, Twitter is one of the smallest social platforms with global reach, (counting 436 million users in January 22. Yet, it is used by 80% of world leaders and by close to 70% of journalists — at least in the US. This means that although comparatively small, it has a powerful reach.

Twitter is also perfect for capturing rapid response quotes and responses to current events. With Musk's takeover, we have seen an exodus of advertisers, a decimation of the Twitter team and fundamental policies on content moderation and information quality.

Journalists, academics, civil society and many others are flocking to new platforms like Mastodon and Hive, where they hope to feel safer. This has two major consequences for those who have used Twitter as a platform so far.

First, Twitter's ecosystem is changing in terms of users, algorithms, and the major players contributing content. This means that Twitter users will see different kinds of content than they have previously seen (e.g. more hostile and toxic content), which acts as a deterrent for those who may have used Twitter to share information and content in the past.

This leads to the second impact: a major decline in trust and quality, making it more difficult and less rewarding to continue to use Twitter.

'People will use it in pro-social ways'

DW: What would the withdrawal of these media communities mean for Twitter? How could it affect its advertising business, which now is largely halted?

Sujon: The withdrawal and transformation of Twitter communities to other platforms mean that its core identity, purpose and values are also transforming. In my view, Musk is wildly experimenting and I think he will aim to unload to another buyer once he has sapped any public value from its pre-Musk model.

Twitter will still allow individuals to share their views and it is still a source of information from trusted individuals on what is happening with China's anti-lockdown protests, for example. There is a chance these kinds of exchanges can still happen, although it will be harder to maintain and build these kinds of networks in an increasingly toxic environment, which will look like more sensationalism and polarized content. This will draw advertisers who do not prioritize brand integrity or public responsibility.

That said, Twitter has been a major source for activism, exchange and empowerment. There will be people who continue to use it in pro-social and community-building ways, so there is hope that users will quickly adapt to Twitter's changes in exciting and powerful ways.

Are there real alternatives to Twitter?

DW: Many users are already switching to Mastodon. Many find the feature on Mastodon which enables you take your Twitter followers with you attractive. What do you think about these recent developments?

Detail of a photographed smartphone showing the Mastodon and Twitter app
Mastodon - a serious opponent?Image: Davide Bonaldo/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

Sujon: One of the things that is so limiting about social platforms, is that although they are participatory, their data infrastructures mean that contacts and content often get locked into platforms. Being able to bring Twitter followers with you is extremely helpful and will enable new Mastodon users to feel like they haven't lost too much.

However, Mastodon is a fundamentally different platform, with a remarkably different technical structure, culture, and affordances. So, while it might feel helpful for users to transplant their Twitter accounts to Mastodon, they risk missing out on the basics of Mastodon's culture. Mastodon will also change as a result of these recent migrations.

'Elon does not understand the culture at Twitter'

DW: As an entrepreneur, does Elon Musk sufficiently understand Twitter and its very nature as a universally beneficial commodity — or do you think his understanding is limited to seeing it merely as a commercial takeover?

Sujon: It doesn't look like Elon has understood Twitter's culture. It looks like he is a spoiled billionaire having a go at a social tech company to boost his ego. 

However, I would also be careful of underestimating Musk's intentions. One of Meta's (then Facebook) greatest achievements was training generations of social media users to accept platform changes, privacy violations, mass data extraction and collection, and monetization as basic platform behaviour. If we make this comparison, Musk's long game may not be just about a commercial takeover, but about fundamentally shifting public conversation in his own interest.

Note: Dr Zoetanya Sujon is Senior Lecturer and Programme Director in Communications and Media at the London College of Communication. In her book "The Social Media Age", the scientist investigated social networks and their impact on society - because they surround us every day.