Will Elon Musk give media the wake-up call they (we) need

Elon Musk is planning to make a few radical moves at Twitter, and from the looks of it, they are going to send ripples across the media industry. Let’s start with the most recent splash he made regarding his Twitter dreams. Musk reportedly told bankers about his plans for charging a fee for embedding tweets. Given the digital media’s reliance on tweets, a step like that would obviously hit the pockets of publications, especially the upstarts trying to leave a mark. It will also hamper the accessibility aspect for readers, with higher subscription prices or more paywalls likely resulting.

Musk also claimed that a nominal fee should be levied for commercial and government users. Yet again, it is newsrooms that keep a vigilant eye on the Twitter handles of government authorities and brands, passing on the information tweeted by them to the masses. Government institutions can absorb the cost, but there’s no stopping brands from pushing their tweets behind a Super Follow paywall.

How would newsrooms that agree to pay the price for sourcing corporate Twitter announcements link or embed such tweets in an article that is free to read without any policy transgressions? Yes, screenshots can work for text- and picture-based tweets, but what about video clips? If embeds are blocked for such scenarios and a hyperlink to an exclusive tweet lands the reader nowhere, isn’t that tantamount to asking users for blind faith in a news publication? But that’s just the tip of the iceberg here.

Why are Twitter and media so chummy?

Twitter and journalism share a deep bond. In 2015, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey credited journalists for the quick growth of Twitter, and how the platform was a great fit for people discovering news. Back then, 25 percent of Twitter’s coveted verified accounts belonged to journalists or media outlets. A Reuters Institute study from last year pointed out that Twitter is seen “much more as a primary destination for news.”

In comes “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk with his whirlwind $44 billion acquisition of Twitter. Musk is making bold promises for the platform under his leadership. Among those goals are ending the scourge of spambots, encrypting Twitter DMs, and open-sourcing the algorithm to boost transparency. Or just generally making it a more fun place.

But at the top of the list is a free speech agenda. That sounds good on paper, but it also risks undoing Twitter’s years’ worth of progress on moderation. “Having a platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization. I don’t care about the economics at all,” Musk remarked during his TED interview two weeks ago. Balancing opinions and being politically neutral sound like benevolent ideals for a platform, but the repercussions might push the media business toward a major reality check.

Twitter logo
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Twitter acts somewhat like a virtual notebook for journalists to collect information and offer real-time updates on breaking news events. Research from the Sheffield Hallam University says Twitter has made it easier for reporters to build relations, while editors are effectively using it to promote legacy brands. But that’s just the surface of it.

Twitter irreversibly changed journalism

The platform has actually helped give birth to a new kind of journalism. The Guardian says Twitter has become central to its journalism, with the platform helping it achieve record traffic soon after the Edward Snowden story broke. A 2021 study from the Pew Research Center found that 69% of Twitter users in the U.S. rely on it for news, with nearly two-thirds of them showing trust in the news they come across on Twitter.

The role of journalists has also changed drastically, as they’re now building a personal brand by tweeting live events in real time, or writing threads about topics they are passionate about but can’t really cover at a publication. Landing a plum book deal now depends on the number of Twitter followers you have, and so does the revenue one amasses from their Substack newsletter.

The retweet button is a convenient way to share breaking news or endorse an idea with just a single tap. Crowdsourced content available on Twitter helps create a more engaging news story with embedded videos and photos, without having to put a reporter on the ground, especially in precarious scenarios. For better or worse, influential figures beefing on Twitter regularly makes for front-page stories.

7/Journalists make Twitter better by providing context, research, and a balanced perspective drawn from what the people experience.

— jack⚡️ (@jack) March 21, 2015

In fact, Twitter is influential enough that it can catalyze policy change for rival social media platforms with a much larger user base. The “Everyday Sexism Project” is an example of how Twitter’s hashtag feature was deployed, forcing Facebook to recognize the problem of disturbing content targeting women that was rampant on its platform. In fact, Hashtag Activism has become a powerful force for change across the globe. A study from the American Press Institute explained in detail how Twitter is more than just a breaking news service.

That’s problematic, especially with Elon Musk’s free speech stance. A loose hand at content moderation would mean the bad actors will have a field day at spreading conspiracies, fake news, and misinformation. A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison revealed that even reputed institutions like The Washington Post and NPR have mistakenly carried propagandist tweets from state-sponsored sources like Russia’s IRA.

Twitter has helped journalists overcome geographic circulation boundaries, but that freedom has also been exploited to disperse problematic content. With the kind of laissez-faire policing that Musk is potentially pitching, it would become even more difficult for the “Twitter news consumer” to identify good content from bad. And when the audience has been ensnared in the web of propagandist content, crowdsourcing for legitimate information is going to become a nightmare for reporters and newsrooms.

Is it really news?

Whether or not Musk becomes the Tweetlord of Modern Civilization, Twitter will not fundamentally change as a platform. It will continue to be the public town square where news originates from influential figures and institutions, and covering stories as quickly as possible is what a journalist or media house will remain preoccupied with. But there are downsides to it as well.

As the Nieman Journalism Lab puts it, the overreliance on tweets for stories grants Twitter an unfairly large amount of authority, and it has compromised some core journalistic practices. “Journalists can get caught up in a kind of pack mentality in which a story is seen as important because other journalists on Twitter are talking about it, rather than because it is newsworthy,” concludes the Columbia Journalism Review, which performed research on journalists and their bond with Twitter.

For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 27, 2022

A free-speech platform that is more lenient on the kind of content from both sides of an ideology will definitely make the online chatter more chaotic. Musk said in his TED interview that instead of deleting tweets that fall in the “gray area,” he would rather let them stay on the platform, even though he is open to more suggestions.

That brings us to the final part of the equation: The echo-chambering. When a lot of journalists talk about a topic at the same time on Twitter, it seems as if the debate is roiling the country. In reality, it can be merely a heated discussion between a few reporters with opposite takes, while their followers just amplify the debate. “Twitter can be a great journalistic tool, but it can also skew what’s really important in the world,” wrote CNN’s incoming resident Chris Licht, who is also quitting the platform on the day he assumes his new role.

It’s time for a reality check

The “Twittersphere” has affected what good ‘ol dogged reporting is, and Musk’s vision for the platform might just be the reality check this profession needs. Whether or not Twitter gets nastier under Musk would be an afterthought at this point. The bigger a crowd gets on the de facto public town square, the more diverse opinions will get.

With that happening, it would become harder for journalists and fact-checkers to separate truth from misinformation. In an age where sensationalism is commonplace and misinformation travels at light speed, the situation will get messy sooner rather than later. It would be an ugly sight and the onus would fall as much on Musk’s libertarian approach as it would on Twitter as a platform.

By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.

I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.

If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.

Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022

The media will continue its reliance on Twitter as it does today, albeit in a potentially noisier online space with more toxicity and the fallacy of human behavior in its ugly, naked glory. As for Musk – if he’s willing to listen – he should be aware of his massive influence and what is borne out of it, for the sake of Twitter and millions of its users. Let’s not forget Musk’s toxic fandom. There’s a whole history of Musk fans harassing journalists that dared criticize the billionaire.

In a world where genocides have been planned over social media, bending to local laws and championing free speech is a delicate balance that can’t be left to the whims of a billionaire who can’t or simply doesn’t want to comprehend what’s at stake here. Therefore. it’s going to be up to the media to make the next move. The two are tied so closely these days that it’s impossible to separate the two. But the media is going to have to wake up and realize that things are changing, and they (read: we) are going to have to adapt to this new, Musk-led era of our favorite platform, for better or for worse.

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