Environmentalists and academics flee Elon Musk’s Twitter nightmare

Less than a year since Elon Musk acquired Twitter (now known as X), researchers and environmentalists are fleeing the site, websites are being throttled on a whim and any pretence of a freedom of speech paradise seems gone.

According to new research from Pomona College in the United States, nearly half of users identified as environmentally oriented were no longer active on the site within six months of Mr Musk buying the company and taking it private in October.

Dr Michelle Riedlinger, Associate Professor at University of Queensland Media Research Centre, said most people who are environmentally minded are also concerned with social justice causes.

“The ethos of Twitter has changed, and the people had created a lot of community, their identity, all sorts of joy and learning though Twitter,” she said.

“There’s a lot of leaders in the academic community who are leaving now.”

Although individuals are cutting back or leaving the site, Dr Riedlinger said environment and conservation groups haven’t been affected by the exodus because they use multiple platforms for communications.

“They go where the conversations are,” she said.

“They’re really struggling with TikTok at the moment and how to engage efficiently with young people.”

Before the acquisition, there was no appetite or reason for a competitor to the short-form blogging platform launched in 2006.

Dr Riedlinger said Mr Musk reinstating the accounts of controversial figures like Donald Trump and Andrew Tate, the removal of authentication, and an increase of spam messages has driven away people.

“Environmentally minded people often go to Twitter as a political space to learn about, debate and discuss environmental policy or advocacy change, but those ideas have become eroded,” she said.

“Firing 80 per cent of the staff and dismantling the trust and safety reporting area – those are the sort of things that make people think this isn’t a genuine space for people to engage.”

Freedom of speech

Mr Musk claimed while purchasing Twitter he would be a “free speech absolutist”.

He has since banned an account tracking his private jet, suspended journalists who wrote negatively about him, blocked links to Substack when it launched a competing service and enabled censorship by the Turkish government.

Now, Mr Musk has throttled traffic to sites he dislikes, according to the Washington Post , by adding a five-second delay when redirecting to sites like The New York Times.

Self-proclaimed “freedom of speech absolutist” Elon Musk has repeatedly banned those he doesn’t like from the platform. Photo: AP

Dr Marc Cheong, senior lecturer in information systems at the University of Melbourne, said there are lessons for X from other websites.

“The platform Digg serves as a classic example on how users exercise their choice to ‘vote with their feet’ if they disagree with the direction the platform is heading,” he said.

“Users disagreed with design changes and monetisation of the platform in approximately 2010, and have moved to other platforms such as Reddit as a result.”

Twitter has plenty of new competition eager to take on the once monopolistic micro-blogging site.

The future of X

Dr Cheong said Twitter and hashtags are a great example of how users can self-organise and improve a platform from within.

“Before the hashtag, there wasn’t a mechanism for tagging tweets with key terms. Thanks to the community’s initiative, the hashtag was then adopted by the platform,” he said.

“The active participation of a platform’s community of users, as seen in the example above, has the potential to impact the platform’s direction and success.”

But many users are cutting down or walking away, with a survey by Nature of more than 9200 scientists revealing more than half reported using the platform less since Mr Musk acquired it, 7 per cent stopped using it all together and 46 per cent had joined another platform like Bluesky, Mastodon, Threads or TikTok.

Dr Riedlinger said “behemoth” sites like Twitter are both useful and have unresolved issues, but users no longer feel it is fit for purpose.

“People are still searching for that place to connect the way that was really special, but I don’t want to romanticise Twitter either,” she said.

“We’re still waiting for that wonderful space where we can share ideas, disagree and learn.”

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