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'Alarm bells' should be sounding over Musk's sudden Twitter changes, EBU boss says

‘If you start arbitrarily putting new levels on what is or isn’t trusted, then I think that’s bad for democracy,’ said Noel Curran.

FORMER RTÉ DIRECTOR General Noel Curran has said “alarm bells” should be ringing at the rate of change in social media giant Twitter since its takeover by Elon Musk.

Curran held a number of senior roles at the national broadcaster before serving as Director General between 2011 and 2016.

He currently heads the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).

The EBU is the world’s foremost alliance of public service media organisations, with members in 56 countries in Europe and beyond.

Members benefit from access to exclusive sports events, as well as opportunities for sharing, learning and collaborating with other public service media organisations.

The EBU also organises and runs the Eurovision Song Contest.

In a recent blog post on the EBU website, Curran warned that “Twitter’s policy decisions are bad for public service broadcasters, but more importantly, it’s bad for citizens”.

Speaking to The Journal at the Eurovision venue in Liverpool, Curran noted that “Twitter is important whether you like it or not”.

“It is something that influencers use, and I don’t mean influencers in a social media sense, I mean it in terms of politicians, journalists, business people,” said Curran.

“Twitter has influence and whenever I talk at European level or in Brussels around social media and the threats of social media, I always try to say that social media can just flip.

“Because of the ownership structures, because of the influence and the power they have, they can just change direction.”

One of these sudden changes in direction can be seen in Twitter’s verification system.

Since taking control of Twitter in October last year, Elon Musk repeatedly warned that verification badges would be exclusively available to members who pay at least €8 a month for Twitter Blue, Twitter’s subscription service.

When the change was implemented, thousands of celebrities were stripped of their verification badges.

Many have since had their blue checkmarks restored, but several famous faces, including author Stephen King, basketball star Lebron James, and actor Ian McKellan confirmed that they had not paid for the verification badge.

Some state organisations, such as Met Éireann, An Garda Síochána, and various government departments, have retained a grey checkmark that identifies them as a “government or multilateral organisation account”.

Other accounts, such as BBC News, have a gold checkmark to signify that “it’s an official organisation on Twitter”.

In a now dropped feature, US public radio NPR and Canada’s public broadcaster CBC were described on Twitter as “state-affiliated” and “government-funded”.

These labels were previously reserved for non-independent media funded by autocratic governments.

“People need trust,” said Curran. “People don’t trust social media but they do trust some of the organisations, both public and private, that operate within the social media sphere.

“If you start arbitrarily putting new levels that you decide, as the new owner of Twitter, on what is or isn’t trusted, then I think that’s bad for democracy, it’s bad for the public and that’s why I think this is dangerous.

“It’s so arbitrary and it’s so sudden and it’s driven by almost a personal agenda on a worldwide basis and that is something we all need to stand back and have a look at.”

“An individual has come in and just flipped direction for this worldwide influential media outlet, and bang, everything goes in a different direction.”

Curran also voiced concern that leading social media companies are able to “introduce a new policy which completely influences the rest of the ecosystem and they just decide to do it”.

“That should be really worrying for people,” said Curran, “that a platform that has that amount of influence can just change policies overnight because they change owner and the owner says, ‘well, let’s do it like this’.

“That can happen elsewhere with social media and tech giants who dominate so much of what audiences get and read these days.

“I think we’re all very nervous about it and it’s still early days and we don’t know where Musk is going, but it’s an alarm bell for all of us in terms of what has happened there.”

Since Musk bought Twitter, the company has also relaxed the moderation of content on the network, letting back many users banned because of messages inciting hatred or spreading misinformation.

Musk also announced on Monday that Twitter is cancelling accounts that haven’t been used for a long time.

“We’re purging accounts that have had no activity at all for several years, so you will probably see follower count drop,” Musk said in a tweet.

It sparked concern among users on the app that accounts belonging to deceased friends and family would soon be erased.

Elsewhere, Curran revealed to The Journal that Eurovision is “growing quite exponentially” in terms of digital and social media audience.

“I got the initial figures for the week this morning and the social media figures, they’re just extraordinary, they’ve increased massively on last year,” said Curran.

He added that the song contest is “increasing in terms of sponsorship interest, commercial interest and it’s increasing with a younger demographic”.

“Part of that is the social media interaction and the way it’s been embraced in the digital sphere,” he adds.

Curran also noted that there is scale to expand the product into other countries.

The EBU was involved in the production and broadcast of an American Song Contest last year, along a similar format to the current Eurovision.

While that project is on ice at the moment, Curran says his team is actively exploring other avenues for expansion – including, potentially, a song contest in Canada.

“We’re not actively seeking other non-European countries to perform at the moment, and we’re always open to situations that arise, but what we are actively pursuing is taking the format and the values and bringing them elsewhere.”

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Diarmuid Pepper and Daragh Brophy reporting from Liverpool
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