Elon Musk’s Twitter: What does it mean for journalists?

This article was originally featured in the Tow Center’s weekly newsletter. Subscribe here to stay up to date with our latest events and publications.

 

“Elon Musk has bought Twitter. What are we going to do about it?” This is the question raised in many newsrooms, given the outsize role Twitter plays in journalism in the US and many other countries. The most intense debate has centered on whether proposals to charge for verification will lead to journalists abandoning their blue checks.

Musk’s tweeting out of a link from the highly dubious Santa Monica Observer to a conspiracy theory about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband—and snarky tweets directed at the New York Times and The Guardian—is Trumpian in its effect of discrediting the press and inverting the truth. Maybe the starkest warning yet of what might be to come was the use of a Twitter label to rebut the content of a tweet from ProPublica writer Eric Umansky.

The label is part of the “Birdwatch” pilot whereby community members can add context or flag a Tweet seen as misleading. The Tweet contained a shot of part of an article by the New York Times, and the added ‘context’ was that “Mr Musk has, without details or explanation, personally denied this part of the story”.

The private ownership of Twitter raises a pressing business and ethical issue: Should journalists continue to use a platform whose owner is openly hostile to the practices of the free press?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The history of media gatekeepers is littered by less-than-perfect ownership. Even today, in the United States, sections of the press are owned by unaccountable and antidemocratic billionaires or controlled by vulture capitalists and hedge funds that might be free of ideology but are just as destructive in terms of undermining the fabric of local media.

Is a major social platform being owned by Elon Musk materially different from Rupert Murdoch controlling large swaths of news media in the UK and the US? Does it have wider implications than the juggernaut of Alden Global Capital flattening local news outlets? In terms of social media, the world’s fastest-growing platform is owned by a Chinese company, where the lines between what is corporate data, private data, and government data are blurred.

Against this backdrop it might be argued that Musk’s ownership of Twitter is of only minor importance to journalists, and not materially worse than many others who control our information infrastructure. Ownership of a social platform, even one with a relatively small active user base, is different. It is different because the platform collects data as well as content.

No journalist should ever really use Twitter to contact sources, and yet on a daily basis the offer of “My DMs are open” is used to solicit tips or testimony. This has never been a safe way to interact with people who might require anonymity, but particularly not now. As a public company on which journalists represented a class of “superuser,” Twitter was incentivized to make those systems secure, and not to allow leakage or inappropriate use of material. Even then, using Twitter as a secure notebook was never advisable.

As Twitter is now a private company, where the Trust and Safety Team is being eviscerated, there is no guarantee of anonymity or security in any messages. What’s more, the new proprietor is not above targeting individual journalists. Adding clarifications to stories he doesn’t like and using privileged access to the back end to respond to press criticism are the reddest of flags. That there is no regulation of ownership or governance that might stop behavior tantamount to an abuse of power is a reflection on what a free market delivers in terms of safeguarding the public interest.

Back in 2013 New York Times journalist John M. Broder took a test drive in a Tesla Model S. Documenting his dreary trip between Newark, Delaware, and New Haven, Connecticut, Broder logged his battery and charging problems with the electric wonder-car. The response was a furious blog post from Tesla founder Musk claiming that the data Tesla harvested from the drive suggested a deliberate attempt to sabotage the car for a “salacious story.” Independent evaluation of Broder’s review found this was an exaggerated and largely false allegation.

The episode is only one of many skirmishes the new owner of Twitter and one of the world’s richest people has had with journalists. Musk is a media paradox who combines both relative accessibility with extreme hostility toward journalists. A frequent and splenetic tweeter, Musk has been happy to sit down for hours with Joe Rogan and for slightly less time with the Financial Times, but his overall disregard for journalism is one of the hallmarks of his public persona. Riled by coverage of Tesla, Musk suggested in 2018 that journalists should be rated by the public and went as far as registering the domain Pravduh.com as an elaborate troll to suggest he would follow through.

Of all the social media platforms currently operating, Twitter is the most embedded in the field of journalism. Not every journalist tweets, or lurks, but a surprising number of journalists use Twitter as a critical part of their jobs. I once asked Dick Costolo, then the chief executive of the company, how it felt to be running the “free press of the twenty-first century.” He laughed and replied, “That’s not quite how I see it.” A lack of adequate competition, coupled with the network effects of scaled global platforms, means that if Twitter becomes 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, blue-ticked or not.

Clarification has been added to this article in regards to use of Twitter’s Birdwatch pilot program.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Emily Bell is a frequent CJR contributor and the director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Previously, she oversaw digital publishing at The Guardian.