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Twitter social media app showing Elon Musk running on a mobile phone, as Twitter has temporarily closed its offices as more staff chose to leave, sparking new concerns about the site's ability to stay online. PA
VOICES

Twitter's survival is about more than just Elon Musk getting his way - here's why

Twitter has been shaken to its core since Elon Musk acquired it – does it matter?

LAST UPDATE | 18 Nov 2022

WHEN YOU THINK of Twitter, what comes to mind?

Does it remind you of the Arab Spring, conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and human rights abuses in Afghanistan and Qatar? Well, without Twitter, we wouldn’t know so much about these issues. We wouldn’t have verified, factual information.

Set up in 2006 by Jack Dorsey and co, Twitter may have an estimated 300+ million users, but it has struggled to come out from under its eye-watering $30 billion IPO valuation in 2013. It has also faced constant scrutiny regarding harmful content and misinformation.

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Former US President Donald Trump – a rapacious user of the site in the run-up and during his presidency – became the poster boy for that content and was later permanently banned by Twitter in January 2021, following the riots at the US Capitol. Things settled down a little after that, but enter new owner, billionaire Elon Musk from stage left last month, and the whole Twitter chessboard has been thrown in the air.

‘Total confusion’

Whether you use Twitter or not, you’d have to have been living under a rock to miss the dramatic acquisition of the social media giant by the world’s richest man for a comparably eye-watering $44 billion.

Musk finally closed the deal last month after a protracted corporate and legal battle. In the run up to his big purchase, he was busy tweeting about lofty plans to end bots on the site and become the great defender of free speech. So far, so ‘let’s wait and see’.

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Things have descended into chaos since then, however, with mass staff layoffs at the company. Those who have survived the cull face harsher working conditions while Musk tweets continuously, his first email to staff warning them of “difficult times ahead”.

Musk did not delay the shakeup of the company. One former employee who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said the last few weeks have been relentless, with staff shocked and confused.

He told us:

The day after Elon arrived at Twitter HQ with the famous sink was the day everything turned. I was in work the next day and one email came saying ‘anyone in the San Francisco office come and say hello to Elon’… most ignored it as it felt a bit weird. We thought nothing of it and but when we signed back into work on the following Monday, the atmosphere was so odd. 

He says none of the senior managers would confirm online rumours for staff from then on, as they appeared to have no answers. They heard that certain big names in the company had been fired, and then followed a drip feed of confirmation of sackings. This staff member stresses that throughout these few days, they had no ‘official’ communication from the company, while most of them could see their new owner tweeting randomly:

This went on for days and by Wednesday, 2 November we heard of mass layoffs. We had meetings and it felt like the writing was on the wall, but again no facts. At midnight that night we finally saw the company email to staff, saying we should expect an update to our personal email. I couldn’t sleep that night and when I went to check my work email the next morning, I was locked out. Everyone was losing access through the night. It was carnage, just awful. Our jobs were gone. A really weird experience. 

This staff member says his job is gone but there is still “total confusion” across the company. He says that staff appear to be treated differently depending on the jurisdiction the company is operating in:

Some staff in the UK and Ireland might receive severance but I cannot stress that there is absolute confusion everywhere. Everything has just happened so fast. It’s only this week, two weeks on that some sort of shape has been put on this and we’re hearing from HR consultants. We have colleagues who are paying mortgages, doing IVF, have visa constraints attached to their jobs, health issues, the lot. The shock, fear and lack of clarity throughout has been so stressful.

This former Twitter employee says there is a huge element of sadness for very close teams who had worked together for years. He says the camaraderie in the last few weeks has been helpful and that now that the dust has settled, “we have a great bunch of teammates and everyone is supporting each other”.

Who runs the world? 

While Twitter and its staff are upended by a billionaire, concern is growing about the company’s ability now to keep it running safely. Twitter has lost many high-level leaders responsible for data privacy, cybersecurity and complying with regulations.

Musk today says he is “not super worried” about the future of the platform, but there are reports in the US that Twitter has closed its offices until Monday over fears disgruntled staff could sabotage the company.

The Elon playbook here, while swift and relentless is not necessarily a new one. Billionaires love media – they love buying it, playing with it and sometimes, breaking what’s good about it. It stands to reason, really. You’ve made all that money over the years, you’re getting ever so slightly bored and you need to be heard, seen and respected.

Elon Musk wouldn’t buy Twitter if he wasn’t cognisant of the power Twitter has, even if it’s not making the money he needs. He knows it has the power to reach into areas that other social media sites haven’t – that it can make news stories out of local happenings, that politicians reach for the app first to share their news.

We will continue to hear a lot about ‘free speech’ and growing brands, but this time, the chaotic nature of the changes could push this media tool too far. Musk is right insofar as Twitter needs to make money, but at what pace and ultimately, what cost?

What use is Twitter?

You might ask yourself, what is all this fuss about, what does it matter if Elon Musk wants to run amok with a social media site – isn’t Twitter just another social media distraction tool?

Well, yes, in a way. Twitter can be fun. The banter is great, the camaraderie is real in some quarters. But it does have a bot problem and faces blatant misinformation challenges.

That perception of Twitter as a place of nonsense is probably the reason many, like one good friend of mine, believe, “for the past two weeks most of the journalism around the supposed demise of a billion-dollar company has been hysterical. It’s such an inside journalism thing. Things will settle down and the company will survive.”

Perhaps he’s right, and some might be forgiven for thinking Twitter has become a shouty, cranky place, where the great and the good (the ‘Twitterati’) go to show off and tangle every day. It has unquestionably become something of a culture war battleground and I’ve seen more than one person go home bruised. And so who could blame anyone for calling it a hellscape.

The reality here is that Twitter is not just a micro-blogging tool. It is a vital tool for journalists, activists and anyone interested in the free sharing of information. And that much-discussed blue tick matters, but not for the reason you think. Think verification, not adulation.

For over a decade, Twitter has become the go-to site for researching and harnessing a database of valid interviewees, contributors, experts and activists. In a previous role of mine, our team documented human rights abuses for years – from the Arab Spring, through to the war in Syria and later the turmoil faced by those in Afghanistan and Iran.

We could not have featured the Voices of activists on the ground were it not for instant access to our curated lists of contacts and activists in the various regions. Twitter lists and verified accounts (not because they were bought, but because they were earned) are a vital tool in this important work.

Twitter is also an exceptional tool in the midst of a breaking news story. It enables journalists to move fast, and source the facts in a trusted, curated environment. 

This is only one aspect of the Twitter story, but it is an important one. It is easy for us in our modern, free world to laugh at what is happening in the Twittersphere right now. And yes, some of the noise on that site is a lot to take. Try though, for a moment to imagine that you are an ordinary person on the ground in Tehran, for instance, with no voice, no direct access to global media outlets, scant internet access.

Twitter is the fastest, most accessible tool you have at your disposal. You can source and connect with verified (the all-important ‘blue tick’), working NGOs, activists and journalists. 

Elon Musk is in full flight since he bought the blue bird. He has embraced the Silicon Valley model of disruption and it’s hard to know what he has planned in the long run. We’ve witnessed one of the fastest upendings of a media company in modern history. Who knows, Musk may surprise everyone and turn Twitter around, freshen it up – though right now the tea leaves suggest otherwise.

Musk’s ultimate downfall may be that he believes Twitter to be a mere chatroom for elites. There is some magic in this social media platform, and it may be in real danger. It would be a shame to see it lost. One would hope that its disruption will not lead to the destruction of this vital, if flawed communication tool.

Laura Byrne is the editor of the Voices column at The Journal.

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