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Between echo chambers and elections, are journalists too addicted to Twitter?
Future News 137
As journalists get unceremoniously banned and unbanned from Twitter, amid Elon Musk’s attempt to radically change the fortunes of the company, including mass layoffs and overnight policy changes, it’s a good time to reflect on the platform’s place in public life.
Compared to its peers and rivals, namely the Meta platforms of Facebook and Instagram as well as ByteDance-owned TikTok, Twitter is a relative minnow in the social media ecosystem.
The business has more than 360m monthly global users. By comparison, Facebook alone has 2.96bn monthly users worldwide, while Instagram boasts of more than 2bn users. Its market cap’ before Musk announced his first takeover bid was around $30bn. Meta is worth more than $300bn today, and that follows a slump in its share price across 2022.
When it comes to consuming the news, Twitter is near the bottom of the global social media platform league table – typically just above Telegram, and behind the likes of YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram.
Yet Twitter’s wider social and cultural value – one of the core reasons why Musk purchased the platform in the first place, dubbing it a “de-facto town square” – is derived by the vast number of politicians, policy makers and journalists who regularly use the social network, many of which are so-called ‘super-users’, publishing six to seven tweets per day.
To put the heavy usage of Twitter by journalists into perspective further, almost seven-in-ten (69%) of all US journalists use the platform. This compares to Facebook (52%), Instagram (19%), LinkedIn (17%) and YouTube (14%). It’s almost the reverse of how the wider American public are using social media platforms to consume news, with Facebook (31%) and YouTube (22%) topping the list.
The same can be said of US politicians, with an analysis of the 116th Congress (January 2019 - January 2021) showing that Twitter was the most popular social media platform for American lawmakers, culminating in a staggering 2bn likes and favourites across Twitter and Facebook and half a billion shares and retweets.
“Previous research by the Center has found that a small number of lawmakers with large followings account for the bulk of congressional audience engagement,” the researchers explained.
“And as overall engagement has exploded, the number of lawmakers with more than 1 million followers across their social media accounts has tripled over the last three legislative sessions – from just 10 such members in the 114th Congress to 30 members in the most recent Congress.”
The problem is that digital bubbles are being created, shaping, creating and propelling narratives and information between journalists and politicians that do not proportionally reflect the daily lives of voters both on and offline.
Reflecting on Westminster’s own Twitter bubble, outgoing FT journalist Seb Payne summed up the situation well:
“For members of parliament, Twitter has become a constant focus group on what (allegedly) matters: more immediate than scavenging through postbags, far less time-consuming than knocking on doors. Finding out what colleagues, journalists and voters think has never been easier.”
The same accusations can be levelled against journalists. There are daily culture wars on British politics Twitter, but voters care most about the economy, the NHS and inflation. In the US, it’s a similar story: the economy, inflation and the government/poor leadership rank as voters’ top concerns.
Beyond the apparent disconnect between the general populous and lawmakers and journalists, Twitter also has some other notable pitfalls for the news media industry. There can be a disconnect (a quasi-decoupling) between journalists and their outlets, who ultimately pay their salaries yet may not directly benefit from ‘breaking’ or ‘exclusive’ content shared first on Twitter.
Smaller yet valuable outlets, including trade publications and regional newspapers, could be overlooked and out-gunned on the platform by bigger accounts benefiting from the journalism the less influential outlets have invested in and broadcast/published (on the flip side of this dynamic, the big UK accounts fought back against aggregator Politics For All, eventually leading to its demise for this very reason).
And although Twitter’s immediacy has made the platform popular, it also means there is a lack of space for thoughtfulness and nuanced reporting. For all these problems, there are beneficial flipsides: new journalists can make a career out of becoming popular on the platform, otherwise niche and overlooked stories can become popular thanks to Twitter and its brevity means users can consume information quickly, amongst other positive elements.
Despite this, a wider social media rethink has been triggered and Twitter alternatives are gaining momentum. The most popular is Mastodon. Created in 2016 by then German undergraduate Eugen Rochko, the 500-character platform helps create decentralized ‘instances’, where communities, much like Reddit, can set-up, maintain and moderate their own discussions.
Mastodon is also a non-profit, with Rochko reportedly rejecting five investment offers from VC firms in the past months. The project is instead funded through crowdfunding on Patreon, with more than 9,000 supporters providing over $34,000 per month or more than $4m per year.
“Funnily enough one of the reasons I started looking into the decentralized social media space in 2016, which ultimately led me to go on to create Mastodon, were rumours that Twitter, the platform I’d been a daily user of for years at that point, might get sold to another controversial billionaire.
“Among, of course, other reasons such as all the terrible product decisions Twitter had been making at that time. And now, it has finally come to pass, and for the same reasons masses of people are coming to Mastodon,” Rochko wrote in a recent blog post.
Naturally, a journalism server has been created on Mastodon, journa.host. Users must become verified before they can join the server and the decentralized nature of the platform means that the moderators can tailor the rules to best suit the needs of the trade, rather than abiding to Twitter’s terms and conditions. There are, however, some obvious potential hazards to such an online community:
Lack of virality and global discovery
As Kyle Chayka has warned in The New Yorker:
“Users who want to have a lively, varied experience on Mastodon have to put in effort, too. On Twitter, you log in to your account and are immediately thrust into the melee of the “global town square,” for better or worse.
“On Mastodon, you can start accounts on as many servers as you like but you have to log on to each one in turn, as if each were its own separate social network…But Mastodon’s built-in friction and fragmentation make it harder to communicate with many people at once.”
Academics at The University of London have also questioned Mastodon’s claims to decentralization, arguing that there are user, infrastructure and content-driven pressures towards centralization.
“Due to the differing popularities of toots (equivalent of ‘tweets’), we find that outages in just 10 instances could remove 62.69% of global toots,” the researchers said.
Regardless of its potential downfalls, the creation of journo.host and the growing popularity of Mastodon comes at an important time for news media. We are now effectively entering the long election campaign period in the US, UK, India and other countries expected to hold general elections in 2024. It is therefore a great time for journalists to be exploring other digital town squares beyond Twitter.
📺 Media and tech questions to think about