Twitter turmoil is terrible for journalists, may be bad for journalism

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


It is — or was — a truism that the journalists were on Twitter but the audience was on Facebook (probably TikTok now). 

However, we all know Twitter has an outsize influence on journalists, and it revolutionised the way journalists shared content and exposed themselves to dialogue with colleagues, critics, and a wider audience — often for the good and all too often toxic.

What’s different since Elon Musk took over as proprietor is that the toxic discussion about journalists and journalism is driven by the owner. In almost countless tweets and actions to suspend journalists who displease him (or, to be fair, who may have breached what are now fast-changing and unpredictable Twitter rules on what is and is not permitted), Musk has demonstrated or acted out contempt for journalists — especially those at major news brands.

In Twitter exchanges with the nihilistic lawyer-turned-journalist Glenn Greenwald, Musk endorses the idea that what Greenwald pejoratively calls “corporate journalists” are amoral, parasitic, and have enjoyed undue privilege on the Twitter platform until now.

“No special treatment for corpo journalists anymore,” Musk tweeted in response to a retweet by Greenwald, mocking a tweet from Washington Post journalist Paul Farhi, one of those whom Twitter had suspended in a spat supposedly about Musk’s personal security.

Central to that special treatment has been the “blue tick.” Musk has described it as a status symbol when it was actually created to identify “real” people, which in journalism meant people with a reputation — many of whom worked for reputable organisations. Of course, it went beyond journalism and to politics and sports and many publishers now carry a gold equivalent of the old blue tick — actually a white tick on a blue rosette.

Twitter's new gold tick is for verified businesses.
Twitter's new gold tick is for verified businesses.

“In a few months, we will remove all legacy blue checks. The way in which they were given out was corrupt and nonsensical,” Musk wrote on Twitter on December 12.

It is part of what someone I respect in journalism described as an unprecedented attack on the entire profession, trade, and industry of journalism by the richest person in the world. (At least Musk was that at the time it was said.) It is hard to think that journalism could face a worse period of attack as purveyors of biased “fake news” than under former President Donald Trump, but somehow there’s a sense that journalism Twitter is being taken away from journalists.

Part of this is related to the so-called Twitter Files, given by Musk to hand-picked journalists who tend to hunt alone now having left those “corporate” jobs. It’s true that the tweets by Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss and others about the way pre-Musk Twitter interacted with security services, especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), are fascinating and show a company struggling to maintain its own policies and the reach of security services into the big platforms. But they hardly point to a conspiracy between Twitter and the FBI.

Exhibit A is a series of internal memos and messages about the Hunter Biden laptop — left for repairs and mysteriously finding its way into the hands of Trump lawyer Rudi Guiliani. Most important for our discussion was the Twitter decision to suspend the account of the New York Post for Tweeting about its exclusive reporting on the contents of the laptop.

Any reputable media organisation should be concerned about the decision — more or less against Twitter policies at the time — to suppress the distribution of the Post story. However, it is also hard not to understand the febrile moment in time with fear of more foreign interference in the U.S. election process and the reluctance of Twitter Inc to be used.

“Why is corporate journalism rushing to defend the state instead of the people?” Musk asked in a tweet.

The more lasting impact may be Musk’s either performative or real contempt for journalism. Twitter has been the home of the high-speed circulation of journalism, journalists have become influencers on Twitter for good or evil, and arguably Twitter has amplified the personalised “me, me, me” approach of much modern journalism and commentary.

When I last wrote about the Twitter turmoil, INMA members told me Twitter was so insignificant in terms of inbound traffic and subscription sign-up, they years ago stopped investing in developing a presence on the platform. That may be true of publishers, but it remains true that journalists themselves are on Twitter and care about the future of the platform.

Reputations have been made on Twitter. If the platform shifts more strongly to being a rebuke to “corporate journalism” with its style books, ethics, and in-house lawyers — and moves towards the more conspiratorial, less-edited approach of more individualist journalists and commentators — it may be less powerful but even more a source of bias and misinformation.

None of this means those corporate news services — the backbone of INMA — don’t have faults and haven’t made mistakes, but they generally have a level of accountability to readers and shareholders and mostly enforced policies about corrections and ethical conflicts. 

We talk a lot in the Newsroom Initiative about ways to promote and protect trust, but we haven’t before had the world’s former richest man — a true innovator with 123.5 million Twitter followers (nearly double Trump himself) — hating on us. It may be performative, but it is risky.

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About Peter Bale

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