Published November 2, 2022

Musk's Twitter takeover creates uncertainty for professionals using platform for good

'Governments, police forces, school boards and even transit authorities lean on Twitter too to keep the public informed'
Elon Musk Twitter - CP

By Tara Deschamps in Toronto

Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover has professionals considering fleeing the social media network, but some say abandoning the platform could give those who spread misinformation exactly want they want from credible voices: silence.

"I've already had many colleagues tell me that they're wrestling with, 'How do I respond to this takeover?'" said Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, of his fellow public health professionals.

"I think the answer, at least for the foreseeable future, is don't get off it because we need to have those science-informed voices on the platform and if we leave, it just becomes this massive echo chamber for bunk and that can be incredibly harmful."

Caulfield, who has gained more than 83,000 followers on Twitter for calling out pseudo-science from people including actress Gwenyth Paltrow, is one of many professionals facing what he called "a weird, weird, very weird moment" after Musk — the Tesla and SpaceX leader known for brash business moves — purchased the platform last week.

Journalists, public health officials, academics and politicians have long relied on the platform to build networks, connect with the public and disseminate trustworthy information. Governments, police forces, school boards and even transit authorities lean on Twitter too to keep the public safe and informed.

"I think there are certain professions where it has basically been essential to be on Twitter," said Heidi Tworek, Canada Research Chair and associate professor at the University of British Columbia.

Caulfield agreed.

"I feel like it's part of my academic career to be following social media,” he said. 

"Our mandate is to fight misinformation, so we can't really abandon these platforms."

But in the days since Musk's purchase, some like Caulfield have seen the amount of hate and misinformation on Twitter increase and Tworek said Musk's reputation for quick, controversial moves and reneging on plans is generating "a lot of trepidation and uncertainty."

"For many people, there is a contemplation of at what point does this become a professional risk rather than a professional benefit?" she said.

Musk has mused about defeating spam bots and making algorithms open source to increase trust, but has also talked about championing free speech. Many believe he could allow controversial figures back onto Twitter and reduce moderation efforts.

In anticipation, some have fled the platform or started promoting accounts on other platforms.

After Musk took over Twitter, Peterborough, Ont.'s medical officer of health tweeted a link to his Instagram account "just in case I get kicked off Twitter for continuing to not let good times roll for merchants of pandemic misinformation, and sharing evidence-based public health guidance."

Dr. Thomas Piggott declined to comment on his tweet.

Some professionals are even more careful of the language they use on Twitter because they don't want to trigger bots or hate.

"And that's really unfortunate because those spreading the hate and those spreading the misinformation, they don't pull their punches and they don't hesitate," said Caulfield. 

"So when you (watch your words out of fear), that's a win for the hate mongers."

Some suggest hateful voices could be amplified even more after Musk revealed he plans to remove Twitter's verification check marks for users who don't pay for Twitter Blue, the company's subscription offering. Twitter currently charges $6.49 a month for Blue but verification is free and provided to journalists, celebrities and other public figures who meet the company's criteria. 

"Twitter's current lords and peasants system for who has and doesn't have a blue check mark is bulls---," Musk tweeted Tuesday. 

"Power to the people! Blue for $8/month."

Depending on how Musk adjusts verification and how many verified users are willing to pay to keep their check mark, Tworek worries people could use the new policies to sow discord or spread misinformation.

"Would it be that somebody could pay to impersonate someone?" she said. "How would one prevent scammers, who are the type of people who would actually be willing to pay for this?"

The verification plan could force major organizations like governments to decide whether to pay for Twitter Blue or cover the fee for staff to avoid being seen as illegitimate.

The cost of not doing so could be significant because your brand could be tarnished by others who pretend to be you on verified accounts, said Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa.

Entering a caucus meeting Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government will "continue to evaluate" how it communicates with Canadians in light of Musk's takeover.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, who is a frequent user of social media, added it's too early to decide on an approach.

"Frankly, it’s not something that I’ve thought about a whole lot," he said. 

"I think we’ll see what changes come and what this new administration means for the social media."

— with files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2022.

Banner image via The Canadian Press

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