By now, most of Twitter’s 217 million daily active users have probably heard the news: Elon Musk — the world’s richest person, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and a prolific internet poster — has reached an agreement to buy the social network for about $44 billion.
Twitter regulars are wondering what a Musk-owned platform will look like and what it will mean for online harassment, misinformation, democracy and — most of all — their data privacy on the service.
If you’re worried about your Twitter account, we’ve gathered some of the most important things you can (and can’t) do right now.
— What could actually happen?
Musk has outlined some of his vision for Twitter, but it’s unclear what much of it would mean for regular visitors. It could take up to six months before a deal is closed and Musk is in power at Twitter. But people who use Twitter anonymously to communicate sensitive information, or who worry about online harassment, are considering taking action now.
Musk has repeated an interest in opening up Twitter for “free speech,” which could mean looser rules for content moderation and enforcement, leaving users vulnerable to more harassment or misinformation, critics say. Musk’s repeated desire for Twitter to “authenticate all real humans” raises questions about how the platform will handle anonymous accounts. And as an owner of Twitter, Musk would, in theory, have access to the wealth of data the service has collected on its users over the years.
By default, Twitter saves your tweets, likes, DMs (direct messages) and lists of your followers and those you’re following. It also has information about all your contacts from your phone’s address book, if you granted it access, as well as details on what ads you’ve clicked. Twitter is used by activists, whistleblowers and political dissidents, as well as regular people, who fear Musk could abuse or mishandle their information.
— Back up your tweets.
If you’re considering leaving, or are not sure but want to be ready, you can start by backing up all your old tweets. Twitter offers a backup option in Settings: Click on “Your account,” then “Download an archive of your data.” After you jump through a few security hoops, you’ll be able to download your information as a zip file. Third-party tweet-deletion tools also usually offer backup features.
— Delete your tweets.
Once you’ve safely backed up your data, you can delete your tweets if you want to continue using the site but minimize the data it has. Twitter lets you delete only one tweet at a time and doesn’t have a built-in feature for deleting in bulk or on a schedule. We recommend using a third-party tool such as Tweetdelete.net. You can set it to delete your tweets older than a week up to a year, or you can start fresh and delete them all at once. It can also delete all your old likes. Twitter says deleted tweets will “no longer be publicly available,” but it’s unclear how long they’re saved on Twitter’s servers and therefore accessible by the company. Twitter also preserves any quote tweets that show your original post, so those will live on.
— Delete your account.
If you are truly done with Twitter, you can delete your account, but there are a few caveats. If you’re deleting your account to make sure the company no longer has access to your data, it’s not a one-click solution. Twitter will hold on to your data for at least 30 days in case you change your mind and want to reactivate the account, and some content will linger, such as sent DMs. To delete your account, go to “Settings and privacy,” then “Your account,” then “Deactivate your account.” Select 30 days for the Reactivation Period and click “Deactivate.” After that point, Twitter says, it will remove your data from its systems.
California residents should also be able to ask Twitter to delete all their data under the California Consumer Privacy Act. The company does not make this process clear, but start with this form for contacting Twitter and select “I want to ask a question regarding privacy on Twitter,” then try “Cancellation of data” from the second drop-down menu.
— Stop using Twitter DMs.
Privacy and security experts have been calling on Twitter to make its direct messages encrypted for years. The company hasn’t, and the result is an unusually exposed trove of sensitive communications. Some users and lawmakers such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have called on Twitter to add stricter privacy measures or data options for DMs before the sale is finalized.
If you’ve used Twitter DMs for private conversations, you can delete an individual message from your account, but it will still exist for the other people in the conversation. However, Twitter says that if both parties delete the same DMs, the messages are deleted from Twitter’s systems. If you are using Twitter for anything other than casual chats, switch to an encrypted messaging service such as Signal.
— Lock down your Twitter privacy and anti-harassment settings.
Twitter under Musk could relax rules on harassment and what posts are allowed or grounds for suspension. The company has worked for years to try to address its problems concerning bullying, hate speech and inappropriate content with new settings and rules. Twitter users who are worried about what happens if those gains are reversed can start by applying the strongest protections currently provided.
The most extreme option is to set your account to protect tweets so only your followers can see them. Go to “Settings and privacy,” then “Privacy and safety,” then “Audience and tagging,” then select “Protect your tweets.”
To stay public but minimize problematic replies to your tweets, go to “Settings and privacy,” then “Privacy and safety,” then “Mute and block,” then “Muted notifications.” Here, you have a list of options for notifications you can mute, such as people who haven’t confirmed their email or accounts that are new. The “Mute and block section” also links to helpful third-party tools such as Block Party, which has lists of accounts you can block in bulk.
— Be extra vigilant about misinformation.
One other possible side effect of a Musk-led Twitter could be a rise in misinformation, experts say. Musk himself has been known to tweet misleading information, including saying “kids are essentially immune” to COVID.
Detecting and avoiding misinformation is familiar territory for many longtime Twitter posters, but it’s worth refreshing the basics.
Always pause before retweeting, especially posts that may trigger an emotional response. Follow reputable news organizations, their reporters and other reputable sources on Twitter. You can make your own Twitter list for them or follow someone else’s.
If something controversial is posted by an individual, try to track it down to the original news or research source. Don’t retweet things you can’t confirm or that don’t explain or link to the source. And use fact-checking sites and reverse image searches, and — at least for now — you can look out for Twitter’s own warnings on content that may be misinformation.
— Move to a different social network.
It’s not easy to pack up your hot takes and move to another Twitter-like site. Few social media services have the same combination of big names and real-time, newsy conversations. Re-creating the same communities off Twitter is impossible without an exodus to the same destination.
For those looking to find a Twitter alternative to escape Musk’s vision, there are limited options. People could move conversations back to Facebook, whose user base has started to decline and where real-time news is not a priority of the algorithm.
Other popular mainstream options include the internet message board Reddit and closed communities on services such as Discord. There are foundering conservative sites such as Gettr, Gab, Parler and Donald Trump’s Truth Social, but these already tout free speech as a core principle and are filled with far-right ideology.
However, some people are pushing for alternatives to the usual for-profit tech companies, where users maintain more power. There’s the “fediverse,” which isn’t a single company, but an open-source way that smaller social sites can interact. On the fediverse, social media sites are decentralized and use an interconnected set of servers to communicate with one another. This eliminates the need for one overarching company to govern the network and set one-size-fits-all content policies others find irksome.
Mastodon is, once again, surfacing as an alternative social network. Launched in 2016, it is an open-source and decentralized microblogging platform similar to Twitter.
On sites such as these, communities can decide what kind of content they want to allow or deny. But the concept has been around for years, and most sites have failed to gain traction, while others have collapsed entirely. Experts and current users note the biggest challenge for mainstream alternatives is getting enough people to join and re-create a sense of community that people find enjoyable or valuable.