CALIFORNIA (AFP): Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, users irked by the platform’s new regime have vowed to move their online presence elsewhere, with German-owned Mastodon attracting the most attention.
Musk’s first moves have been a shock to some. Just a week after taking over the reins of Twitter, the owner of SpaceX and Tesla launched radical changes by firing thousands of staff, promising the return of banned users and ramping up a plan to make people pay for privileged access to the site.
This has left many users looking to defect to new platforms, though with few obvious alternatives available for now.
– Mastodon, the anti-Twitter –
Unknown to the general public until recently, Mastodon has seen its popularity explode among Internet users concerned about the direction Musk is taking Twitter.
Created in 2016 by the German developer Eugen Rochko, the site presents itself as a “decentralized” social network without advertising where preserving privacy is sacrosanct.
“Your ability to communicate online should not be at the whims of a single commercial company!” Mastodon tweeted when the Musk deal with Twitter was announced in April.
In practice, Mastodon like Twitter is based on postings of small messages, but each new user must sign up to an independently run server and there are thousands of them. In theory, users can interact freely across the Mastodon servers, but this can be complicated and unreliable.
On his personal account, Rochko said Mastodon reached more than 1 million monthly active users on Monday with the addition of 1,124 servers and nearly 490,000 new users since Oct. 27, when Musk took over Twitter.
This is still tiny compared to Twitter, which had nearly 238 million daily active users at the end of June.
The publicity has not been easy for Mastodon and many new users complain about the platform’s unintuitive interface, underlining the difficulty of creating an account and the poor response times unlike sites run by the tech giants.
Content moderation is also a big question mark as it is left to the sole discretion of server administrators, with some refusing access to others, disrupting the experience.
– Under construction –
Other sites eager to welcome Twitter’s defectors are still very much in a development phase.
This is the case of BlueSky, the new project of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey that in late October claimed to have 30,000 people on its waiting list after only 48 hours, or Cohost, which promises that its users’ personal data will never be sold.
In online discussions, established platforms, such as the microblogging site Tumblr or the audio chat app Clubhouse, have seen a resurgence in popularity.
A few other start-ups are also attracting attention, including Counter Social and Tribel Social.
Then there are the right-wing sites such as Gab, Parler or Truth Social, the platform launched by former US president Donald Trump, which positioned themselves as conservative alternatives to Twitter long before the takeover by Musk.
Trump is largely expected to be reinstated on Twitter shortly after the US midterm elections on Tuesday, leaving the fate of the financially challenged Truth Social in limbo.
– ‘Very early days –
For the moment, there is no indication that these alternatives to Twitter will be able to compete with, let alone surpass, Musk’s new company.
In a tweet published on Monday, he even assured that “Twitter user numbers have increased significantly around the world since the deal was announced,” without providing any figures.
“And these are very early days,” the billionaire entrepreneur continued. “As Twitter becomes by far the most reliable source of truth, it’s going to be indispensable.”
But it remains to be seen whether the most prominent Twitter personalities (celebrities, athletes and politicians) will stay on the site or whether they will fall back on platforms with an even larger audience such as Facebook, Instagram or TikTok.
Blue tick accounts suspended from Twitter after impersonating @elonmusk
Verified Twitter accounts with millions of followers have been suspended after their user name was changed to Elon Musk, as the platform’s users test the new owner’s commitment to free speech he does not like.
Comedian Kathy Griffin, whose blue-ticked account has two million followers, was among those who were locked out after crossing the mercurial CEO.
Musk, who has previously described himself as a “free speech absolutist” tweeted Sunday that “any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying ‘parody’ will be permanently suspended.”
The Twitter account for h3h3Productions, which also changed its user name to Elon Musk, was also banned, despite labelling itself a parody.
User @jephjacques changed their display name to Elon Musk, and posted a series of satirical tweets referencing Musk’s hands-on approach to his new company, including: “look can everyone just stop tweeting for a second? it’s too fast for me to moderate by myself.”
The account, which has over 80,000 followers was suspended a short time later.
Compounding the impression that he was personally involved in decisions to ban accounts that target him, Musk responded to a tweet announcing Griffin’s suspension from the service.
“Actually, she was suspended for impersonating a comedian,” he quipped, prompting a response apparently from Griffin, who said she was now using her dead mother’s account.
“I mean… you stole that joke, you asshole,” @TipItMaggieG — whose username was also Elon Musk — tweeted. “People have been posting that joke for hours, you hack. Look, please do a better job running this company. It used to mean something.”
Other users, including “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill, joined the fray, with the hashtag #FreeKathy.
Since completing his $44 billion takeover of the social media company, Musk has publicly mused about how to turn a profit.
Actions so far have included firing half the firm’s global workforce, and announcing an $8 a month charge for the previously free blue tick verification.
On Monday he waded into the US elections, urging “independent-minded voters” to vote Republican.
“Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic.”
Twitter takeover raises fears of climate misinfo surge
Climate deniers looking to block action and “greenwashing” companies could have free rein on Twitter after Elon Musk’s takeover, analysts warned as leaders pursued anti-warming efforts at the COP27 summit.
The Tesla billionaire and self-declared free-speech absolutist has fired thousands of staff -– with sustainability executives Sean Boyle and Casey Junod among those signing off from the platform last week.
Musk has promised to reduce Twitter’s content restrictions and after the takeover announced plans to create a “content moderation council” to review policies.
“It’s not clear what Mr Musk really plans to do. However… if he removes all attempts at content moderation, we can expect a surge of disinformation, as well as increases in misleading and greenwashing advertisements,” said Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University who has authored leading studies on climate misinformation.
“Greenwashing” means companies misleading the public about their impact on the planet through messages and token gestures.
“We may also see an increase in hateful comments directed towards climate scientists and advocates, particularly women,” Oreskes said.
Following the buyout, one climate journalist tweeted that he had received death threats on the platform. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
– Sustainability execs axed –
Researchers and campaigners say that despite measures announced by social platforms, climate misinformation is thriving, undermining belief in climate change and the action needed to tackle it.
Twitter and other tech giants such as Facebook and Google have said they are acting to make false claims less visible.
But the Institute for Strategic Dialogue think tank said in a detailed study this year that messages aiming to “deny, deceive and delay” regarding climate action were prevalent across social media.
Under Twitter’s policy before the takeover, it said “misleading advertisements on Twitter that contradict the scientific consensus on climate change are prohibited”.
“We believe that climate denialism shouldn’t be monetised on Twitter, and that misrepresentative ads shouldn’t detract from important conversations about the climate crisis,” Boyle and Junod wrote in an Earth Day post on Twitter’s blog.
Both posted messages on November 4 with the hashtag “LoveWhereYouWorked”, indicating they were among those laid off after Musk’s $44-million takeover. They did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
– Scientists at risk –
Beyond false information, some specialists warned that climate scientists themselves face threats if moderation falters.
A surge in hate speech drove Twitter’s head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth to respond, trying to calm concerns. He tweeted that the platform’s “core moderation capabilities remain in place”.
Musk wrote on November 4 that “Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged.”
“I worry that scientific falsehoods will find a bigger platform on Twitter under Musk’s leadership,” said Genevieve Guenther, founder of the media activism group End Climate Silence.
“But I worry even more that the website will start deplatforming climate scientists and advocates who criticise right-wing views, preventing them from connecting to each other and to decision-makers in media and government.”
– Blue ticks at COP? –
Among Musk’s plans is an $8 monthly charge for users to have a blue tick by their name — currently a mark of authenticity for officials, celebrities, journalists and others.
“To me, this is opening the door to highly coordinated disinformation and manipulation,” said Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor in communication and information at Rutgers University.
Musk said the move aims to reduce hate speech by making it too expensive for trolls to have multiple accounts.
Aronczyk argued the system would give a mark of authenticity to those willing to pay for a blue tick to push an agenda.
She pointed to the controversy around Hill+Knowlton Strategies — a PR company working for big fossil fuel companies -– reportedly hired by host Egypt to handle public relations for the COP27 summit.
“Picture every Hill+Knowlton staffer working for COP27 creating a network of blue-check accounts to promote the business-led initiatives at the summit. Or downplaying the conflicts. Or ignoring protests,” Aronczyk said.
“It’s basically letting corporate greenwashing become the default communication style around climate change.”