Journalists have much to lose if Twitter dies

Musk floats 'general amnesty' of suspended Twitter accounts

By: News Desk
Published: 12:43 PM, 24 Nov, 2022
Journalists have much to lose if Twitter dies
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Few will lose as much as journalists if Twitter dies, having grown reliant on its endless sources and instant updates despite the dangers and distortions that come with it.

There has been fevered talk of the platform's imminent demise since billionaire Elon Musk took over last month and began firing vast numbers of staff.

But most journalists "can't leave," said Nic Newman, of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. "It's actually a really important part of their work."

Newman was working at the BBC when Twitter started making waves in 2008 and 2009.

"It was a new Rolodex, a new way of contacting people -- fantastic for case studies and... experts," he said.

But Twitter also became a competitor, replacing newsrooms as the source of breaking news for the public when terrorist attacks, natural disasters or any fast-moving story struck.

"Journalists realised they wouldn't always be the ones breaking the news and that their role was going to be different -- more about contextualising and verifying that news," said Newman.

It also meant journalists were tied to the platform for announcements by politicians and celebrities -- most famously the dreaded late-night and early-morning tweets from Donald Trump that left hundreds of journalists sleep-deprived throughout his presidency.

- 'Tribal melodrama' -

The dependency has bred many problems.

New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo spoke for many in 2019 when he wrote that "Twitter is ruining American journalism" with the way it "tugs journalists deeper into the rip currents of tribal melodrama, short-circuiting our better instincts in favor of mob- and bot-driven groupthink."

By rewarding the most vehement voices, the platform tends to drown out the majority of the population -- both moderates and non-elites.

"The debates that happen on Twitter are very much the debates of the elite," said Newman. "It has definitely been a problem in newsrooms."

"Paying attention only to Twitter tends to distort the way that many people, including journalists, see the world," agreed Mathew Ingram, digital media specialist at the Columbia Journalism Review.

Though he hopes they have grown savvy enough to deal with the distortions, journalists have been subjected to a "huge tide of disinformation and harassment".

But for all the frantic talk over Musk's volatile tenure, many believe the site will survive.

"For the record, I don't think it's all that likely that Twitter will shut down anytime soon," said Stephen Barnard, a sociologist at Butler University in the United States.

But he said journalists have good reason to fear its disappearance.

"They would lose access to what is for many a very large, powerful and diverse social network... (and) also a positive source of prestige and professional identity," Barnard said.

"There is no real heir apparent in that space, so I'm not sure where they would go," he added.

On the plus side, Ingram said, it could spur a return to "more traditional ways of researching and reporting".

"Perhaps that would be a good thing," he added.

Meanwhile, new Twitter owner Elon Musk on Wednesday polled users on whether the site should offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, using the same method he used to handle the case of Donald Trump.

The move comes as Musk has faced pushback that his criteria for content moderation is subject to his personal whim, with reinstatements decided for certain accounts and not others.

"Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?" Musk asked in a tweet.

The poll was open until 17:46 GMT on Thursday and mimicked the strategy used just days ago for the former US president Trump.

Trump's Twitter account was reinstated Saturday after a narrow majority of respondents supported the move.

Polls on Twitter are open to all users and are unscientific and potentially targeted by fake accounts and bots.

A blanket decision on suspended accounts could potentially alarm government authorities that are keeping a close look at Musk's handling of hateful speech since he bought the influential platform for $44 billion.

It could also spook Apple and Google, tech titans that have the power to ban Twitter from their mobile app stores over content concerns.

Trump was banned from the platform early last year for his role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by a mob of his supporters seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

- 'No mercy' -

Musk's reinstatement of Trump followed that of other banned accounts including a conservative parody site and a psychologist who had violated Twitter's rules on language identifying transgender people.

The CEO of Tesla and SpaceX has said that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones will not be returning to Twitter and will remain banned from the platform.

Musk on Sunday said he had "no mercy for anyone who would use the deaths of children for gain, politics or fame" due to his own experience with the death of his first child.

Jones has been ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages for his lies about the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 26 people, mostly children.

Musk, who closed his buyout of Twitter in late October, did not make clear whether the bans to be covered by the poll were permanent suspensions or temporary ones.

The future of content moderation on Twitter has become an urgent concern, with major advertisers keeping away from the site after a failed relaunch earlier this month saw a proliferation of fake accounts, causing embarrassment.

Meanwhile the teams in charge of keeping nefarious activity off the site have been gutted, victims of Musk-led layoffs that saw half of total employees leave the company.

John Wihbey, a media professor at Northeastern University, speculated that all the chaos might be because Musk is seeking to "buy himself time."

"Regulators are certainly going to get come after him, both in Europe and maybe the United States... and therefore a lot of what he's doing is trying to frame those fights," Wihbey said.

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