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October 28, 2022updated 17 Nov 2022 2:18pm

Unanswered questions for news industry after Elon Musk’s Twitter buyout

By Charlotte Tobitt

Elon Musk has completed his takeover of Twitter, prompting questions over how far he will take his pursuit of free speech versus the need for online safety.

Musk has tweeted in recent days about his support for “citizen journalism” on the app and his belief that it presents more of an “opportunity for dialogue” than traditional media that have “fuelled… polarised extremes”.

After Musk first announced his intention to buy Twitter, there were concerns among press freedom groups about how his takeover could affect journalists, for example by opening them up more easily to abuse. But he has since promised the site will not become a “free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences”.

With that in mind, Press Gazette has rounded up some questions about Twitter, and in particular its relationship with journalists, we will be looking to see answered in the coming months.

Will verification be easier – or more expensive?

The Twitter verification process is notoriously hit and miss. That coveted blue tick gives news organisations and journalists, among other categories of users, an all-important badge of authenticity in what can be a wild-west world of social media.

But it can be tricky to get the approval, even for those who meet all the requirements. Freelance journalists told Press Gazette earlier this year they felt like “second-class citizens” because they kept being rejected, leaving them looking like they are less legitimate than rival verified journalists.

Musk has seemingly promised to make the process easier, however. He said: “The current process for verification is like if Kafka had a Magic 8-Ball!”

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Separately Musk has said he wants to “authenticate all real humans” and “defeat the spam bots” on the app. His anger over the number of bot accounts almost derailed the entire takeover.

Update 31 October: It was reported at the weekend that Musk is considering charging $19.99 per month for a Twitter Blue subscription, which would become the only way to get a blue tick. Journalists are a large portion of those who depend on blue ticks to signal their authenticity, alongside politicians and celebrities.

Musk tweeted on Sunday: “The whole verification process is being revamped right now.”

The Verge reported that verified accounts that do not begin paying for Twitter Blue within 90 days of launch will lose their blue ticks.

[Read more on the Twitter blue tick: Will it be worth journalists and publishers paying for?]

Will banned accounts return?

In May, Musk said he would reverse the Twitter ban on Donald Trump implemented in January 2021 over the “risk of further incitement of violence” following the Capitol riot.

Musk has argued this was a “mistake” because it “alienated the country and did not result in Donald Trump not having a voice.

“I think it was a morally bad decision and foolish in the extreme.”

Trump subsequently created his own social platform to post on, Truth Social, but this had around two million monthly active users in April compared to Twitter’s 300 million.

On Friday Trump said on Truth Social that Musk’s buyout meant Twitter was “now in safe hands”, adding: “Twitter must now work hard to rid itself of all of the bots and fake accounts that have hurt it so badly. It will be much smaller, but better.”

Twitter has also banned other prominent figures and accounts for a mixture of offences. Infowars and its founder Alex Jones were removed for “abusive behaviour” in 2018 and David Icke was banned for spreading Covid-19 misinformation in 2020. The rapper Kanye West, now known as Ye, was removed from the platform this month over anti-Semitic posts.

On Thursday, after the news broke that Musk’s buyout of Twitter was imminent, Icke addressed it in a video, saying “we’ll see” in relation to the idea of the billionaire being a “free speech hero”. He claimed the platform has been “censoring like crazy anyone who is seriously challenging and exposing the cult agenda”.

Some of Musk’s moves in the hours after the deal went through this week appear to indicate that he could be planning to reverse some of these previous decisions. Notably he sacked legal policy, trust and safety lead Vijaya Gadde (as well as chief executive Parag Agrawal and chief financial officer Ned Segal).

He is already being lobbied to reverse the ban on Russian state outlets RT and Sputnik and stop the labelling of their journalists as being from “state-affiliated media”. The same label applies to other state-backed outlets and their journalists, such as China’s CGTN.

Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, said: “Elon, since you’re all for free speech, maybe unban RT and Sputnik accounts and take the shadow ban off mine as well?” Twitter removed the Russian media outlets’ accounts in March amid sanctions against the country following the start of the war in Ukraine. They had already been banned from advertising on Twitter since 2017.

Update on 31 October: Musk has now said: “Twitter will be forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints. No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.”

What could this mean for press freedom?

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has already asked Musk how he will protect press freedom on the app.

Musk tweeted this week about Twitter’s benefits for citizen journalism, saying: “A beautiful thing about Twitter is how it empowers citizen journalism – people are able to disseminate news without an establishment bias.”

He added that local news organisations are “under-appreciated and should get way more prominence on Twitter”.

But the IFJ responded: “A beautiful thing about #Twitter is it allows professional journalism to disseminate fact-checked information. How will you protect press freedom @elonmusk?”

In April, the IFJ shared concerns that if abuse against journalists is allowed to run rampant then press freedom would be at risk.

Its general secretary Anthony Bellanger said: “Twitter is an extension of journalists’ offices. This is where journalists promote their work, express ideas or find sources of information. This space must be duly moderated while respecting freedom of speech.

“We are concerned that Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter are going the wrong direction by exacerbating opportunities to attack journalists and threatening the anonymity of users.”

And Birmingham City journalism lecturer Nina Robinson pointed out that Musk “has been called a ‘free speech absolutist’ which it’s thought will lead to less content moderation which would inevitably increase levels of fake news and misinformation”.

What could regulation look like?

Despite these fears, Musk has previously backed the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) which was passed this year. In May he said “we’re very much of the same mind” following a conversation with EU commissioner Thierry Breton about the legislation.

The DSA created an obligation for platforms to remove illegal content as soon as it is made aware, and to give users more access to details of how their algorithms work. But press freedom groups shared concerns the DSA would create an incentive for platforms to delete legal content they deem to breach their own terms and conditions or codes of conduct. This could, the groups said, lead to the arbitrary removal of news content.

After the deal went through, Musk tweeted: “The bird is freed.” But Breton responded: “In Europe, the bird will fly by our rules. #DSA”

What will advertisers think?

Advertisers have previously shared their apprehension at the prospect of Musk’s ownership. Media Matters for America, a non-profit that monitors conservative misinformation, said: “If Musk makes even a fraction of the changes he has suggested, the platform will open the floodgates for misinformation and hate speech and reinstate numerous dangerous and abusive accounts…” It urged advertisers to walk away if this happens.

But Musk said in a message to advertisers this week that Twitter “aspires to be the most respected advertising platform”.

He added: “There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society.

“In the relentless pursuit of clicks, much of traditional media has fueled and catered to those polarized extremes, as they believe that is what brings in the money, but, in doing so, the opportunity for dialogue is lost… That said, Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences.

“In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences…”

Advertising currently makes up about 90% of Twitter’s revenue, according to the New York Times.

Could journalists find a new home?

Twitter is the most-used social media platform among journalists for work. A Pew Research Center survey earlier this year found that 69% of US journalists said Twitter was the site they used most or second most in their jobs, followed by Facebook on 52%.

This compared to just 13% of the US public saying they regularly got news on Twitter.

The question is: in the worst case scenario, if people are unhappy with any changes made to Twitter after Musk’s takeover, will journalists leave the platform? And if so, where will they go for their breaking news alerts, gossip, and general procrastination?

One open source alternative being bandied about is the non-profit Mastodon, which has a similar microblogging format to Twitter but works on a decentralised network.

Mastodon saw an influx of users signing up after Musk’s initial decision to buy Twitter in April, and numerous users have been suggesting it as an alternative since the deal went through this week as well.

Another option is WT.Social, launched by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook in 2019 although it has stayed relatively under the radar since. Wales said on Friday Musk’s takeover was “terrible” and said WT.Social’s long-term goal was to be a platform “where content is prioritised not by “engagement” (meaning clicks and outrage) but by the judgment of the most trusted people in the community”.

Otherwise, could we see the rise of Discord channels run by journalists, a pivot to Linkedin, or another fresh, little heard-of entrant? Only time will tell – but it’s clear that people often stick with the easiest option even if they profess some moral objection, for example the short-lived movement of people leaving Meta-owned Whatsapp for Signal last year.

Could publisher relationships be affected?

On a broader level, Musk’s stated idea of shedding 75% of Twitter’s staff could impact its current workings and priorities.

Twitter sustains formal partnerships and informal relationships with many publishers. For example, Pink News chief executive Benjamin Cohen told Press Gazette last month it makes “significant revenue” from a video partnership that means brands buy advertising on its Twitter videos. Many publishers also simply keep a dialogue open with Twitter about, for example, how to get their content featured in its Twitter Moments tab.

But how much time will Twitter employees be able to spend on working with publishers on Moments and the audio feature Spaces if they are cut by three-quarters overall? Could relationships with the news industry become less of a priority? And could there be less editorial oversight on these features?

Picture: Muhammed Selim Korkutata / Anadolu Agency

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