After a lengthy “will he, won’t he?”, billionaire Elon Musk has taken over Twitter and instantly started introducing changes, declaring that “the bird is freed”. The reference to the platform’s logo was meant to be his catchy pledge to unrestricted free speech. With this change, will Twitter remain a safe space for academics?
Concerns about a rise in hate speech and misinformation have been articulated by policy makers, journalists, scholars, and users of the platform alike. This concern was heightened by his tweet saying, “anyone suspended for minor & dubious reasons will be freed from Twitter jail.” The European commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton reacted to the freed bird tweet that in Europe it “will fly by our rules”, referring to the EU’s Digital Services Act, which obligates platforms to moderate their users’ content.
Nevertheless, a rise in hate speech and misinformation has already been documented just days after the take-over. Key figures of the British far-right, including the extremist group Britain First, now freed from “Twitter jail”, have been able to create now accounts on the platform after having had their accounts disabled for years and new accounts suspended immediately. And while under Musk’s leadership, Twitter is addressing the spike of racial slurs that occurred during the take-over, they are also investigating what could be considered wrongful suspensions.
This development resulting from Musk’s $44bn acquisition has left many users wondering, if they should consider moving to a different platform. The hashtag #TwitterMigration has been trending for days, with users moving to the alternative network Mastodon. This platform prides itself in being the largest decentralised social network built by a non-profit. It allows users to curate their own newsfeeds, rather than having algorithms and ads running them. With over 70k daily signups at the end of October (when #TwitterMigration started trending), it seems like Mastodon is trying to position itself as the most viable alternative to Twitter.
Twitter: Connecting academics
But what about the academia side of Twitter? Can it be maintained on a platform that seems so different in nature from Twitter? Over the 16 years in which Twitter has been online, it went through various changes that made it into the successful platform it is today of over 300 million active users. Newsfeeds are curated by users alongside the algorithm, which tries to detect potential interests and reflects them on users’ feeds. This is probably why academics are bound to end up on the academia side of the platform sooner or later. Now, with Mastodon, how it currently stands with its values but also with its significantly smaller number of users, how can this user experience be replicated there? How can researchers find like-minded people without doing the old-school thing of going out of their way to look for them?
Twitter users are already vocal about how Mastodon misses the point of Twitter and can’t be seen as a full alternative:
Other users have taken it on themselves to recreate a space like Twitter, for instance by starting Discord serves. This is also what Cassie LaBelle, a transgender writer, did. She emphasised the danger in Musk’s loosening of moderation rules as it will mainly affect marginalised groups that are already targeted by online harassment. To her, the new rules of the platform are almost like an invitation for trolls to spread more hate.
The free-speech absolutist and his envisioned public sphere
To Musk, his approach is meant to establish “a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence”. In theory his vision sounds a lot like the perfect arena for a public sphere where common consensus is found through deliberation, as famous scholar Jürgen Habermas has envisioned it in the 20th century. However, does this vision hold much validity or even relevance in today’s day and age? The idea of a “global village” was expressed as early as in the 1960s by scholar Jürgen McLuhan, but the rise of online platforms has shown that spaces without moderation tend to bring out the worst in people – ranging from hate speech to violence. Sadly trusting users to engage with each other without having any or just a loose monitoring authority to make sure guidelines and netiquette are being respected, hasn’t really worked in the past.
Musk has expressed that his new content moderation is in the works and that he wants it to feature as diverse viewpoints as possible. This can only leave us hoping that he won’t reach the paradox of tolerance with it, in which in the spirit of being tolerant, intolerance is being…well, tolerated.
Is Musk’s new approach towards Twitter beneficial to the democratic spirit or are his changes tearing up the delicate fabric of a social network that is spanning across the globe? And what will happen to the academic side of Twitter as a result?
Anna Rezk is a 2nd year PhD researcher in Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh in partnership with the BBC R&D. Her research revolves around the implication of personalised and highly customisable public service media content and how it can be leveraged to promote inclusive and democratic civic participation. Due to her background in journalism and computer science, she is particularly interested in news, and how content can be algorithmically enhanced and curated without thwarting editorial intent. Find her on Twitter as @anna_rezk.