Even before Elon Musk’s takeover sent Twitter into a tizzy, it was time for news organizations to reassess the platform.
My thinking here is influenced by research published last year that found that the press is unwittingly transferring its authority to Twitter.
This is especially relevant as Musk positions Twitter as a more authentic source of news and information.
Journalists transfer authority to Twitter by citing tweets as content, not as sources of information that must be verified and interrogated, wrote journalism professors Logan Molyneux at Temple University and Shannon McGregor at the University of North Carolina.
“Journalists are reduced to amplifying and interpreting (as opposed to seeking and verifying) information, sharing authority over information with a social platform that itself is seen as a legitimate news source, if not a distinct journalistic entity,” they concluded. “Considering these platforms have inconsistently and belatedly — if at all — defended accurate information as a public good, this shift raises important questions for democratic societies.”
Their findings should be considered by news organizations and others that are looking at their relationship to Twitter through a new lens, as Musk radically makes over the news-oriented social-media company.
This comes as the news industry is desperately trying to reset its relationship and secure fair compensation for its work from two other digital platforms where people get news, Google and Facebook.
While Musk’s takeover is a mess right now, I wouldn’t bet against him finding ways to grow Twitter’s audience and revenue.
For all the hubbub, only 27% of adult Americans currently use Twitter and only 14% regularly get news there, according to Pew Research. But among Twitter users, a majority get news there, giving it the highest percentage of news users among all the major social platforms.
If Musk succeeds, Twitter will take even more of the trust, audience, advertising and subscription revenue that could otherwise sustain the news industry and its original reporting. That could make the squishy “engagement” and meager traffic that local news sites have seen as benefits of giving content to Twitter seem penny wise and pound-foolish.
Twitter will remain free but Musk is pitching an $8 per month premium plan. If the press continues sharing the gist of its reporting on Twitter, and relying heavily on tweets for content, its subscribers may question why they’re paying $10 a month or more.
“The more journalists point people in that direction, the more likely they are to come to that conclusion,” Molyneux told me.
I’m not as concerned about Musk’s Libertarian bluster. Market pressure and business realities make it unlikely that despicable voices will be completely unleashed and unfettered on the site.
Of bigger concern to me is Musk pandering to those who are already skeptical of traditional media and concerned about bias and political correctness, by directly attacking the credibility of newspapers.
Musk’s move comes as trust in news media is shockingly low, according to Gallup polling that found just 34% of Americans trust mass media to report news “fully, accurately and fairly.”
News, especially local news, fares better in Pew Research surveys that recently found 61% of Americans trust national news and 71% trust local news. The same surveys found just 33% trust information from social media, though 18- to 29-year-olds now trust social media (50%) almost as much as national news (56%).
Either way, it’s ironic to position Twitter as being more trustworthy, while further reducing trust in news outlets producing much of the actual news on Twitter.
This is also cynical, given that Twitter and other social platforms propagate so much of the false, misleading and divisive information poisoning civic discourse.
It’s also two-faced: Musk is simultaneously floating new ways to partner with news publishers, angling to get their paywalled content to add value to the $8 subscription service he’s pursuing. I asked Twitter’s press office for comment about this; it hadn’t replied by my deadline.
Once again, the news industry finds itself in a complicated relationship with an alluring but ultimately destructive partner.
Long before Musk stepped in, journalists were helping Twitter become a major news destination, especially for avid, online news consumers that newspapers need as they continue transitioning online.
It’s to the point where Twitter and its algorithmic presentation of “what’s happening” are presented as having assumed authority over news and information, the academics wrote.
This dynamic challenges “‘journalists’ claims to authority, journalistic independence and the public’s exposure to accurate information” — and that was before Musk acquired the platform.
In a way, Musk reminds me of an old fashioned media baron, using his wealth and platform to stir up controversy, draw attention to his product and make more money.
Legacy media might find ways to benefit from the upheaval — I’d argue that it’s showing how trustworthy and valuable they are — especially if they approach the new Twitter mindful of how they’ve been bamboozled by other tech geniuses.