Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
Former Twitter employees finally get severance offers after months of waiting, only to find them unsatisfactory. Twitter helps drive political mayhem in Brazil. Elon Musk says that Twitter will soon allow users to post tweets that are four thousand characters in length. It may be a new year, but Musk’s ownership of the platform continues to generate ample controversy.
To back up a bit: Musk’s bid to acquire Twitter for forty-four billion dollars, which he initially filed last April, was controversial in part because of his comments about how Twitter needed to do more to protect free speech. His decision to then delay the acquisition, purportedly over concerns about fake accounts, was also widely criticized, since many believed those arguments were a ruse designed to reduce the price, as I wrote at the time for CJR. But the apprehensiveness around all this was a drop in the ocean compared to what has happened since Musk finalized his acquisition of the company in late October (after the most recent edition of this Thursday newsletter came out), getting rid of almost two thirds of the staff—including swaths of the teams responsible for moderating harassment and disinformation on the network—restoring the accounts of prominent right-wing trolls, and suspending a number of journalists, seemingly because he didn’t like what they were writing about.
Musk also stoked the flames of controversy by leaking internal Twitter documents to a number of journalists and right-wing commentators including Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, and Alex Berenson, in an attempt to show that the previous management of the company colluded with the FBI and others to ban conservative accounts, and to downplay information about COVID and Hunter Biden, Joe’s son. In The Nation, Ross Barkan wrote that many mainstream journalists ignored the Twitter Files because “Musk has evolved into a puerile reactionary, suspending journalist accounts at will and tossing off idiotic gibes to his 122 million followers” (though Barkan concluded that the story did, nonetheless, matter). Oliver Darcy, of CNN, said that the files amounted to “grossly misleading claims” that were “blindly amplified to millions by Fox News.”
Not everything has gone according to plan for Musk, to the extent that he ever had one; he even feuded publicly with Weiss after she took issue with Musk’s suspension of journalists. “The old regime at Twitter governed by its own whims and biases and it sure looks like the new regime has the same problem,” Weiss wrote. “I oppose it in both cases. And I think those journalists who were reporting on a story of public importance should be reinstated.” In a Twitter reply, Musk accused Weiss of “virtue-signaling to show that you are ‘good’ in the eyes of the media elite to keep one foot in both worlds.”
Twitter soon said that the journalists who had been suspended had been reinstated, but Micah Lee, of The Intercept, said in late December that that wasn’t quite accurate. Lee was one of the journalists whose accounts were frozen after they wrote about an account that—using publicly available information—tracked the movement of Musk’s private plane. Lee wrote that while many of the accounts belonging to affected journalists looked like they had been unblocked, they were still prevented from tweeting until they agreed to delete the tweets that Musk was upset about. Lee hasn’t tweeted since. An early-December tweet pinned to the top of his timeline reads: “Twitter is garbage and with any luck it will crash and burn before too long.”
Musk himself has described Twitter as “a plane that is headed towards the ground at high speed with the engines on fire and the controls don’t work.” The company was losing four million dollars a day as of early November. Selling eight-dollar “verification” checks to users isn’t filling the hole. So, is Twitter dying? Or gradually becoming a larger version of right-wing troll factories like Gab, 4chan, or Parler? Or limping on as a simulacrum of its former self? Or none of the above? And what, if anything, should journalists be doing about it?
As Michael Grynbaum wrote in the New York Times last month, until now, “Twitter has occupied a unique role in the news and information ecosystem,” with journalists flocking there “to share their reporting, develop relationships with sources, and debate issues of the day.” In yesterday’s edition of this newsletter, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, wrote that while Twitter isn’t dead, “it is transformed, and not in a good way. But leaving is the easy part. How do newsrooms get the attention and readership they need for their work now? How do they engage their audiences in a compelling way? How do they ensure their work is relevant and noticed by the people who need to see it? None of us wants to do great journalism that no one reads.”
Dan Gillmor, a journalism professor at Arizona State University, suggests that journalists should avoid platforms like Twitter altogether, arguing that—in demonstrating his contempt for free speech in general and journalism in particular, with his behavior at Twitter—Musk has shown why “it is foolhardy for anyone to rely on centralized platforms to create and distribute vital information.” Gillmor says that journalists and other information providers “should move to decentralized systems where they have control of what they say.” Some journalists (including Lee, of The Intercept) have adopted open-source tools such as Mastodon, but not without some turmoil, as I noted in a recent piece for CJR. (It seems that some Mastodon users aren’t all that receptive to the ways in which journalists tend to use social networks).
Writing for CJR in November, Emily Bell, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, raised a similar question: “Should journalists continue to use a platform whose owner is openly hostile to the practices of the free press?” The problem, Bell argued, is that should Twitter become “unusable for journalists, there remains a gap in the market for a public-facing protocol that makes the public interest part of its mission at the heart of its design and ownership. Until then, journalists who remain on the platform will need to proceed with more caution.”
In some ways, as Gillmor notes, Musk may have done journalists a favor, by making it obvious just how problematic a privately held social network can be, and how unwise it is to rely on such platforms for journalistic purposes, even seemingly benign ones. Twitter has been a useful tool for journalism, but it has also become a crutch. What replaces it, in terms of how we reach our readers and distribute our journalism, is up to us. Hopefully, it’ll be something that connects us more directly to our audience, rather than using a billionaire’s plaything as an intermediary.