Twitter is in crisis. The news about the micro-blogging giant is currently overflowing. Tycoon Elon Musk took over the platform a fortnight ago, has since been undermining user trust with controversial Twitter policies and is already threatening bankruptcy. What does this mean for the communications industry? Stay or run?
by Vincenzo Ribi
Admittedly, it’s crazy to say anything about Twitter at the moment, because by tonight everything could be different. Nevertheless, here are our ‘two cents’.
“The Bird is free”
When the eccentric tech and Tesla tycoon Elon Musk bought Twitter, the waves ran high. The top management was spiked, and more than 3,700 employees were sacked, most of them by email. This affected first and foremost those who were responsible for compliance with community rules and combating fake news, hate posts, etc. Not an irrelevant decision in the midst of a global information war between latent and open warring parties. Elon Musk’s immidiate ‘endorsement’ of the Republicans shortly before the U.S. Midterm Elections caused further disquiet. The new ruler of the platform algorithms raises fears that Twitter is not immune to instrumentalisation in terms of opinion formation and information dissemination. For many users who have built up their social network over years, this is a reason to panic.
Cowboy Style and System Relevance
While libertarian circles have been paying homage to the entrepreneur Musk with an irritating personality cult ever since PayPal and Tesla, critics are increasingly pathologising him with all kinds of remote diagnoses. The fact that Twitter owner Musk has continued to tweet serially and cowboy-style from the hip since the takeover is special, to say the least. There have always been dazzling and flashy entrepreneurs, but hardly ever have they been owners of one of the most powerful information media in the world. The fact that the CEO mixes private opinion and corporate foreign policy to such an extent is not only dangerous from a public affairs perspective.
Musk’s behaviour since the Twitter takeover has had a disruptive effect on our information society. The role of Twitter in shaping public opinion and especially in politics and the media is so relevant that there is reason enough for EU parliamentarians to want to summon him to a hearing and set new regulatory limits for Twitter.
Musk’s actions, combined with the power of Twitter, fulfil so many newsworthiness criteria (conflict, curiosity, celebrity, sensationalism, etc.) that his statements and messages are guaranteed excessive presence in the classical media.
Credibility for Sale?
If Twitter – despite its agitation and nihilism – has so far been celebrated as a platform for unheard voices (keyword: Iran 2022, ‘Arab Spring’ 2010), new chargeable parameters will put a damper on the ‘haven of freedom of expression’. Twitter is, of course, not a charitable project. In addition to revenue from ‘big data’ and ‘paid content’, the much sought-after blue tick for verified accounts of public interest (media professionals, etc.) is now being hawked for $8 per month – credibility for sale. As a result of this system change, countless fake accounts with credentials have emerged and have already caused massive economic damage (e.g. at the insulin manufacturer Eli Lilly).
However, many average users are also noticing changes directly in their community. Reports are accumulating that follower numbers are shrinking abruptly or that more controversial (sometimes even right-wing extremist) content is appearing in the feed, while favourite accounts are hardly appearing any more. For many people – especially intensive Twitter users – there are currently enough reasons to leave Twitter. The next few weeks will show whether users, investors and advertising companies will continue to trust Twitter.
Besides heartwarming cat portraits or emu soaps, Twitter’s role in the political-media arena should not be underestimated. Every personality and organisation that makes a statement is present. But Twitter is generally unrivalled for the media and the public as a first publication medium for news reports and for OSINT. And thanks to its global connection to discourses on hashtags and trends. So if Twitter were to disappear, it would have a big impact in locally as well.
Many users are now looking for alternatives. Mastodon is being touted as the next best option, although the experience is still very mixed (server confusion, fragmentation of communities, technical teething troubles, etc.). On the one hand, this has to do with the intended orientation of the platform as Fediverse. On the other hand, Mastodon has been overrun in recent weeks and can continue to develop. What now?
As PR professionals, relationships are the be-all and end-all of our thinking and craft. We very well understand how much time and investment people, organizations and companies put into building and maintaining them live and in the digital sphere – often with our support. The prospect of losing a digital communitiy and having to build up a new one can be dreadful. Given the developments of social media it must, however, be a scenario anchored in our minds right from the start of a build-up. Sustainability in content and form has been a motto conveyed to customers in communication consulting for some time. Resilience is the word of the hour to be added to the concept now.
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