Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter is producing a firestorm of controversy, especially among journalists, political professionals, and academics. But how did Twitter become the preferred platform for journalists to interact with politicos and professors, the key conduit for research and opinion to make their way to media coverage, and the center of elite discourse?
This week, I talk to Shannon McGregor of the University of North Carolina, the key expert on the role of Twitter in political journalism and campaigning. She finds that journalists treat Twitter as content to be redeployed for narratives and exemplars of public opinion, even if it is not representative of the broader society. We talk about the role of Twitter on the Left and Right, the implication of Musk’s policy changes, and the reasons we all have such a love/hate relationship with the platform.
Interview: Shannon McGregor
Study: Legitimating a platform
Matt Grossmann: Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter is producing a firestorm of controversy, especially among journalists, political professionals and academics. But how did Twitter become the preferred platform for journalists to interact with politicos and professors, the key conduit for research and opinion to make their way to media coverage and the center of elite discourse? This week I talk to Shannon McGregor of the University of North Carolina, the key expert on the role of Twitter in political journalism and campaigning.
She finds that journalists treat Twitter as content to be redeployed for narratives and exemplars of public opinion, even if it is not representative of the broader society. We talk about the role of Twitter on the American left and right, the implication of Musk’s policy changes and the reasons we all have such a love-hate relationship with the platform. Here’s our conversation. So, let’s start with your recent article on legitimating a platform about the role of journalism in promoting tweets. What did you find and what were the big takeaways?
Shannon McGregor: So, we looked at a year of news stories and we had this hypothesis that we wanted to test, which was that we thought journalists were treating tweets more like content that were pre-legitimated and authoritative, rather than interrogating them we would see in traditional journalistic practice. And so in examining a year of news content from a variety of sources that included at least one tweet in them, I think the big takeaway that we found is two things, one, that we did find that journalists treated tweets more like content than sources.
The tweet was often the only way we heard from a source and there was very little context around it. Often the tweet was the whole reason for the story existing, was the frame for the tweet. And I think the implications of this for journalism is that everything we know about journalism says that sources should be interrogated. The old adage is if your mother says she loves you, get a second source. And we don’t see that with Twitter.
And in some cases that may not be a problem, like when politicians or figures who you already know are using the platform and you’re using that as a source. But we saw it a lot of times with people that journalists might not know who they were and whether they are actually who they say they are. And in the end we argue and I think that this suggests that journalists see Twitter and tweets as pre-legitimated, which transfers some of their authority to the platform itself, rather than journalists being the authority of saying this is what is real or good information versus Twitter being the filter for that.
Matt Grossmann: So, this builds on some of your experimental work on how journalists use Twitter where you had previously found a divide among journalists among those who either treat it as the source of lots of ongoing information and those who are left out of that loop. So, prior to the latest Musk ownership change, how did things stand in terms of Twitter in the newsroom?
Shannon McGregor: I think that we continue to see the effect of it in terms of shaping news. When I’ve interviewed journalists also, they’ve mentioned that in some cases, especially in the realm of politics and culture, that they see Twitter as in some ways they’re like assignment editor. That what’s happening there is really important to cover. But we’ve seen newsroom policies really change around that. So, for example, the New York Times and the Washington Post, obviously very influential newsrooms in terms of not only setting the news agenda, but shaping what journalistic practice looks like, have had struggles with trying to control or have rules around how their staff and journalists use Twitter, to have their own opinions. But we haven’t, I don’t think, really seen it change as a source very often. It is still a place where journalists and I think even news organizations see that news happens, and so it’s an important place for journalists to be for that regard.
Matt Grossmann: And for those who didn’t follow that closely, maybe you can just talk a little bit about the open conflict in newsrooms that makes its way to Twitter sometimes and what effect that might be having.
Shannon McGregor: So, I mean this stems from things like journalists sharing anything from them sharing their opinion about something that’s going on in the world, which bucks against this, I think outdated, but idea that journalists should be “objective,” and to be objective would mean I guess in this view, to not have an opinion about anything, to journalists sharing their own experiences, to a woman who is a reporter at the Washington Post who tweeted about her own experience with sexual assault and how then that shaped the way her editors thought that she could even be able to cover stories that related to sexual assault.
And so we’ve seen this tension play out, but I think what we’ve seen play out on Twitter reflects what we’ve seen in newsrooms more broadly, which is this idea that if journalists have a certain lived experience or a certain opinion about something, that there’s this idea that means that they can’t cover it in some objective way. And I think there’s been a lot of pushback to that and we’ve seen some of that on Twitter, but I think there’s been a broader pushback to that within the newsrooms writ large.
And we saw this around Black Lives Matter as well and issues around sexual and gender identity, that maybe journalists with a particular lived background or particular identity might not be able to objectively cover these movements. And the argument against that is actually maybe those are some of the best journalists to cover some of these issues, because they do have greater experience and context around it. And so that’s been happening in newsrooms more broadly and we’ve seen that spill onto Twitter as well.
Matt Grossmann : You’ve also done a lot of work on political professionals use in social media. So, give us some of the background of how their use differs from journalists or is similar, and maybe why they became reliant on it as well?
Shannon McGregor: So, in talking to people who have run political campaigns, they use it because journalists use it. So, when political campaigns wanted to shift a story or to have something become a story, they would go to Twitter for that. As opposed to Facebook where they would see that they were talking to more regular people or their constituents, or maybe going to places like Reddit where they would be around their hardcore supporters and use it in that way. Campaigns and political, and I think social movements as well, use Twitter because they know they can influence journalists and hence the news almost directly sometimes in that regard.
And so they differ from journalists in using it, because they’re not trying to get news or make news from it, but they’re trying to use Twitter to shape and become the news because they know that journalists rely on it for what is going to become the news and how they report on things.
Matt Grossmann: And you’ve also done comparative work, not comparative across countries, but comparative across platforms. And so you’re well positioned to comment on how Twitter compares to these other platforms and why it has become this place for journalists-activist-politico interaction, even though obviously the audience is quite a bit smaller than some of the other platforms.
Shannon McGregor: I think there’s a couple reasons that it sort of became this place that’s super important politically and culturally. One is because I think we see cultural and social leaders as well as journalists tend to be early adopters of some digital platforms and tools, and so they were on Twitter first. And so it became culturally and politically important because of that. I think another reason, and this even hearkens back to the days when tweets were even shorter, as a journalist and same thing as a strategic communicator, whether it’s in politics or social movements, in both cases you’re trained to be concise and pithy in the way that you write. And Twitter lends itself to that so much more than any of the other platforms. It’s still primarily a text-based platform and it has to be short and pithy. These are the things that gain traction.
And so people who are already trained to communicate in that way flourished on a site like Twitter. And so as both those things continued to develop as Twitter was starting out and becoming more important, those two groups of actors I think became entrenched there. And then we saw this play out in terms of its political importance. If you have one space where politicians, people running political campaigns are and journalists are, whatever that space is, is going to be a really important space. And so Twitter became that even though, as you pointed out, it’s a really minuscule portion of our population in the US and any population of the country or of any country that’s on it, it’s this really important population of people who are really elite figures in our society.
Matt Grossmann: So, our research by necessity is in the pre-Musk era of Twitter, how much should we expect to change? How much should we be reacting to fairly visible policy changes and changes in who’s on Twitter and who’s participating and who’s objecting, knowing that things might not be changing quite as fast as we sometimes expect in the moment?
Shannon McGregor: This is a huge question. So, it was, I guess, the day after it was announced that Musk ownership was actually taking effect. There was this night, it was a Thursday night, I remember that because I was at a conference and I didn’t go do anything, I just sat in my hotel room and was on Twitter, because it felt everyone was tweeting this obituary to Twitter. It was a massive eulogy to what the site was and it felt like an important moment. People haven’t left. Twitter is really still important. And even though we’ve seen these changes, which I think have mostly not been positive because of the role Twitter plays in politics and by extension our democracy, I think they haven’t been good in that regard.
But I guess the swing between this night of a eulogy, but everyone still being on Twitter shows that I think the impact has not necessarily maybe been as great as we thought it might be, just in terms of as it plays out in journalism and politics. I think one of the biggest implications of this is that Musk has become very much more in the news, and on Twitter there’s this running joke of who is the main character of Twitter and there’s always a main character of the day.
And Elon Musk has been the main character of Twitter now for, I think it’s not even been that long, but a couple weeks. So, I think like Trump before him, he has really been able to leverage his use of Twitter and now his ownership of it, but more so I would even say his use of it now as the owner to become central in news, to become central in politics, and to be something that everyone is talking about and the news coverage of it seems to never stop.
Matt Grossmann : So, what are the most significant of the changes that he’s made so far and what effects should we be looking for them to possibly have?
Shannon McGregor: I mean I think one of the biggest ones that we’ve seen recently is that he has been… It’s hard to say that there’s even been any changes because the policies, even as he has announced them, seem to be very both fluid, going back and forth, but also it seems to be really operating on I guess the whim of what he’s feeling or being angry about that day. And so I think that’s been one of the biggest implications is that there used to be policies that were definitely not in the past always enforced evenly or across different types of people the same way, but now it’s really content moderation by one person. And so last week when Musk banned journalists who were covering this Elon jet Twitter account and story, I think that, at least in my eyes, was a thing that shook people the most in terms of a decision.
And I guess I want to put air quotes around “decision,” because it wasn’t a policy change really. It was just a thing he did. But temporarily banning journalists from the site I think has made us realize, or at least the main users of Twitter, made them realize, wow, the power of one person in this case now as a sole owner without really a functioning board, without it being a publicly traded company, dismissing tons of teams around trust and safety, what it looks like to have just one person making decisions on whims in ways that are really impactful, especially when we see this around banning journalists who are covering something that basically Musk just didn’t like.
Matt Grossmann: So, he also tried to promote some news stories about Twitter through leaking some internal documents to selected reporters and commentators, and conservative media treated this as a series of big revelations about Twitter’s policies surrounding the Hunter Biden laptop story in the New York Post during the 2020 campaign. So, tell us a little bit about, first of all, how this story compares to how usually these kinds of stories go on Twitter and then the actual substance of it, what was revealed in those internal deliberations?
Shannon McGregor: So, this was an interesting, I guess crisis communications rollout I would say, by Twitter to leak these internal documents, like you said, to commentators, people in more conservative media. I think roundly, especially on Twitter and within mainstream media, it was a big nothing burger. Campaigns reporting violations of Twitter’s own policy at the time to Twitter and having direct contact with someone at Twitter is pretty standard practice, not just on Twitter but across social media platforms. When you’re running a presidential campaign, you usually have a person assigned to you within a social media company who usually is from the same political persuasion as you.
Ostensibly their job is to facilitate sales basically of ads, and this is true within Facebook and within Twitter and within Google, but that also becomes the campaign’s point of contact. So, reporting things like tweets that are targeting the campaign as violations of Twitter’s own policy and having a back and forth conversation is a really normal thing that happens. And I think anyone who knows anything about how platforms interact with campaigns rightfully called this sort of nothing, that this was not really some big revelation at all.
But I think it was an attempt by Elon to I think change the narrative around what it was about his ownership at the time. And I think also a way to try and ingratiate himself with politicians and political commentators and activists and figures on the right that had seen Twitter under its previous ownership as hostile to conservative or right-leaning points of view.
Matt Grossmann: So, let’s delve into the substance a little bit more, because I know you’ve done work on how political professionals and these content companies are trying to make these decisions real time in the middle of a campaign. So, tell us how that usually works and what political professionals are trying to get the social media companies to do and how the social media companies are trying to apply its policies in the middle of a campaign?
Shannon McGregor: So, in the middle of a campaign, as I said, you’ll have someone at the platform assigned to your campaign, probably solely at the presidential level and maybe covering a couple people if it’s a more down ballot race. That person is trying to make sure that you’re happy, because they want you to keep buying ads and spending money on the platform. And so that person becomes your point of contact. So, for example, in another campaign, and this was with representatives between the campaign and Facebook, a campaign reported, “Hey, my opponent is sharing something that is misinformation and that violates a particular policy that you have, why is it still up?” And this is, again, totally normal conversations that take place and there’s often daily communication between either someone working on a campaign or if they hire an outside digital firm to liaise with platforms.
But what my colleague, Daniel Kreiss and I have found in doing this research is that the application of these policies is often very interpretive in terms of how it’s happening. I think platforms are trying to balance, and they have not necessarily always done it well, but trying to balance acting on their policies and enforcing their content moderation policies with trying to appear not politically biased. And when we see this in the sense of campaigns, this is really hard because where we have seen in the last, gosh, it’s been years now where we have seen most of the disinformation stemming not just on platforms, but we see it on platforms as well, is from the right. And so there is this really delicate balance that I think platforms are trying to enact as they’re engaging in these back and forth with campaigns or with the digital firms that are running people’s campaigns on these platforms.
And I think what we saw in the so-called Twitter files was just confirmation of what we already knew, which was that these conversations take place and that a sales rep ostensibly for a platform who’s talking with a campaign or working with a campaign, can elevate those concerns to other people within the platform, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, in a way that you or I would not have the ability to be able to do it. If we have something taken down, we don’t have a direct line to anybody to try and get that adjudicated differently.
So, as you mentioned, there was a premature obituary for Twitter and there is a real exodus of some people who are concerned with Elon Musk’s policies, but the alternatives aren’t necessarily ready for primetime when it comes to Mastodon and Post was only allowing certain people on, and it kind of copies what happened on the right where the right left for Parler and Trump’s own platform perhaps in response to the assumed politics of Twitter. So, talk about the alternatives that are out there, how they’re different, and why maybe there’s not an obvious alternative to Twitter at this point?
Shannon McGregor: So, I’m on Mastodon and I haven’t tried Post yet, I think because I tried Mastodon first and I just found it sort of boring. And I think one of the reasons that Twitter, as we talked about earlier, has become this important platform was because it’s not just journalists and politicians. I mean that’s one of the reasons, but there’s also a lot of cultural and social commentary celebrities and it sort of brings everyone together in this space. And that’s been one of the reasons that it’s been so important. Mastodon, the way it’s set up, not everyone is necessarily in the same space. You’re on different servers depending on how you sign up and which server you choose to join, so it doesn’t have that same cohesiveness.
And because of that, I think it, A, limits the interactions that have made Twitter really popular and really important between people who are coming from totally different places and backgrounds. But I also think because not everyone has joined it and because of the way it’s segregated by nature in terms of how you join and what server you’re on, there’s just not this sense that it’s fun. There’s no culture on it. I think also because a lot of people left Twitter because of, I think, rightful concerns about Musk’s ownership of it, it seems at least right now it’s like it’s very serious. This is very serious, we’re doing the important thing and we’re leaving Twitter and we have to make this work.
And I don’t disagree with that point of view, but because of that it has not taken off in the same way. And I think you mentioned people on the right leaving for places like Parler or Trump’s Truth Social, yes, but political leaders who joined those sites, they stayed on Twitter for the most part, right? Because that’s where everything was still happening. And I think we’ve seen the same with journalists. Are there journalists on these other platforms like Post or Mastodon? Absolutely. Have most of them left Twitter? No. And the journalists that I’ve talked to just informally since then in the course of doing interviews or talking to them at conferences have said, “I mean I’m not going to leave right now. This is really still important for my job.”
And for those in the space of politics, what’s happening on Twitter, even with Elon Musk’s ownership is a story because of the impact that we know it’s going to have on journalism and politics. And so I guess that’s a long answer to your question, but for those reasons, I don’t think that we’ve seen these other platforms really take off yet.
Matt Grossmann: So, if the composition changes even a little bit, would that change how Twitter discussions go? I know you have work on, for example, gender dynamics between candidates and Twitter commentators, so it might seem like if some of the people went to Parler, that might change the discourse if more of the left leaves for some other platforms, even if those platforms don’t take off, it might change the dynamics on Twitter. What do you think?
Shannon McGregor: I mean in some sense we have seen the dynamics change on Twitter in both of those regards when we saw an exodus from the right or maybe an “exodus” from the right, and maybe the same with the more left leaning exodus to places like Mastodon or Post. I think the biggest changes are going to be around whether people still feel safe to be on the platform. And unfortunately it’s never really been a super safe space for women, especially for women of color, for people from any historically minoritized or marginalized background. And I think there’s an argument that it could be less safe under Musk as he has literally dismissed the trust and safety team, but it’s never been a safe place. So, people’s concerns about it as a person who has experienced targeted harassment campaigns on Twitter myself, for better or for worse, you sort of expect it.
And so the changes, if they happen, I don’t think are going to necessarily drive people off it. But a couple weeks ago I was at a small gathering, a conference that the Knight Foundation hosted, and Yoel Roth, who is the former head of trust and safety for Twitter was there. And he, at the end of his conversation with Kara Swisher, was talking about, “Okay, well, when should we be concerned? What are the signs that we should look for that Twitter is really falling apart?” And he was saying things like, “If you have protected tweets, meaning you’re a private Twitter user, and all of a sudden those are gone, people are seeing your tweets that shouldn’t be seeing your tweets, that’s a fundamental core safety infrastructure feature that’s falling apart. If all of a sudden your DMs are open when you’ve had them not open,” some of these things, he said, “Okay, these are the crisis signs that Twitter is no longer safe from not only a physical safety perspective, but an infrastructural and data privacy perspective.”
He said, “But honestly, a lot of those things are set up and automated and so it will take a long time for those things to deteriorate unless they are purposefully disbanded.” And so I don’t think that it will change too much, but I think if we see the exodus of huge swabs of groups of people, if all journalists leave or most journalists leave, or if the prominent figures of black Twitter all leave, these would be signs that I think would really change the importance and discourse on Twitter. We haven’t seen that happen yet.
Matt Grossmann : So, some initial Twitter meltdown reactions were, “Good riddance,” especially in the journalism world where people seem to think that journalists spend too much time on Twitter, and editors make those claims a lot. So, how much would things change if journalists spent a lot less time on Twitter? Or are there things that editors are blaming on Twitter that maybe are not really about the platform?
Shannon McGregor: Both. So, as we talked about earlier, these arguments that we see in news organizations around reporters identity and backgrounds and what they can cover, that exists off Twitter. We just saw it on Twitter. And I think in the whole, I think for all the ways that journalists and everyone else, academics who are on Twitter, complain about Twitter, I think on the whole it has been really, really positive. So, what will change, if I think of some of the biggest stories and the biggest changes in our society over the last handful of years, I see the role and research bears this out, of Twitter in that. So, for example, the larger movement for racial justice, of which of course Black Lives Matter is a huge part of it.
There’s research including by my colleague, Deen Freelon and by Sarah Jackson and others, that shows how integral Twitter was to that movement becoming something that was discussed in the news. That it changed the way news and news coverage discussed the movement for racial justice and discussed the way that police routinely brutalize black people in this country. And we see this with the Me Too movement as well, how crucial Twitter was for that, for taking conversations and lived experiences that have certainly existed off of Twitter, but Twitter was the conduit to which journalists saw those things change. And so I guess I would worry that Twitter would become… Sorry, I guess I worry that if Twitter fundamentally changes or if journalists leave Twitter and are not on it as much, are there some positives probably? Sure.
But I see it as keeping journalists in some ways even more siloed. Twitter itself of course is a journalistic silo and studies have shown this as well, but still in many key moments has proven a channel through which journalism has changed and the ways that things are reported have changed. And I worry that without this outside line to people who aren’t traditionally necessarily listened to in newsrooms or contacted by reporters, that we would see in some ways less representation in broader news coverage.
Matt Grossmann: So, Twitter was also important to the rise of the Alt Right and far right organizing, they may be incentivized to return to Twitter in the Musk regime. He’s directly reinstated some figures. So, what effects do you think that will have, and what the current state of right wing organizing online and the role of Twitter in that?
Shannon McGregor: I’m glad you asked that question, because it brings up an important point, which is that those very same affordances of Twitter and characteristics of Twitter that I just discussed as being so important for, I would say movements towards a more democratic and equitable society, are the exact same tools and affordances and characteristics that have afforded movements like the far right pushing us further away from democracy and equitable society. And that’s true across all platforms. And I think that’s a really big challenge in trying to think about how to design social media that doesn’t allow both of those things if we’re interested in democracy.
But to your question specifically about the right, we’ve seen some accounts, prominent accounts come back, some not. Donald Trump has a Twitter account, it has reinstated and has not tweeted. I think that’s probably more financially motivated to try and keep people on Truth Social to hear what he’s saying, at least directly. But I think that some of the moves that Musk has made to reinstate some of these far right accounts is to try and repair the image of Twitter among the right, because that’s sort of the political bent that he’s more aligned with. But I think that it’s going to be really hard to get people from the right back in mass onto Twitter, because it’s been a while and they’ve become comfortable in some of these other sites like Parler or Truth Social.
And I think there’s a real skepticism towards his motives in this regard from some on the right. Is he doing this just for financial reasons to try and curry favor among the right and to try and expand the advertising base back into that regard? I’ve heard concerns from that from folks on the right, but I think there’s a skepticism in terms of how long this will last. And I think that’s from the right and the left in terms of Musk’s ownership. And so I think people from the right are worried about coming back in that regard and also knowing that, because like you said, journalists have not left, that some people on the left have exited Twitter but not necessarily in mass, that these same dynamics are going to play out that in some ways have disadvantaged the right, at least on Twitter, as compared to other platforms.
But I think it will be interesting to see in what regard that continues to play out, because it is one of the concerns that gets to the safety that we were talking about in terms of targeted harassment or threats becoming worse than they already are, if there is this great uptick by some of those on the far right back to Twitter.
Matt Grossmann: So, Twitter has also been central to complaints about wokeness and cancel culture, and Elon Musk apparently shares those concerns. And the idea is that, I guess, social ostracism and cancellation outright decisions are common on Twitter and important culturally, but of course immediately after declaring it a free speech zone, he used more direct tactics to remove some people at least momentarily from Twitter. So, I guess comment on what we’ve learned so far in terms of the role of Twitter in these dynamics that people complain about, but also the difficulty of making the rules work without creating that kind of atmosphere on either side?
Shannon McGregor: I mean I think what we’ve seen in the so-called wokeness and cancel culture on Twitter, really reveals something that social psychologists and social scientists know more broadly, which is that there can be this mob mentality anytime you get a bunch of people into one space who tend to share a view on something. And this is just happening more publicly than maybe we’ve seen in other ways, which is why we’re getting this attention to it on Twitter. But I also think that some of those dynamics reveal what we were just talking about, which is that people who have not normally had a dominant voice in society and politics and the news, have been able to use Twitter to call attention to inequities, to call attention to specific people or industries that have been harmful, and that’s decried by some as wokeness or cancel culture.
And others, myself included, would just call this maybe raising awareness or people suffering consequences from their actions. But we’ve seen this play out on Twitter and on other social platforms and in society writ large, and I think what this shows is that this dynamic actually that my colleague here at UNC, Alice Marwick, has talked about, which she’s seen play out on Twitter and other platforms, which is called Morally Motivated Networked Harassment. Which is that when you can find a bunch of other people who have a similar view as you and you feel someone or some group of people has wronged you, then you can morally incentivize one another to excuse any harassment that you may target a particular person with.
And Twitter has been a place where we have certainly seen a lot of this, and this is both from people on the right and on the left, absolutely. And so I think that one of the things that the ideas of these sorts of things playing out on Twitter is that it has made these ideas of social identity, group norms, the ways that we can quite easily justify things that we might not normally justify when we’re in this group, has made it really visible. But this has always been a dynamic that societies and people have, and I think Twitter has just made it really visible.
Matt Grossmann: Elon Musk took over a company, overpaid for the company by general standards, and has made decisions that don’t seem to be consistent with making future money. He’s made the primary revenue sources, the advertisers mad, he’s threatened some of the user base, but he also claims to be acting in the financial interest of the company and of course reduced staffing quite a bit. So, talk through what were the preexisting financial problems that Twitter had compared to other social media companies, and how much can we say is driven by the need for a new business model versus just the views that Musk brought to it regard to politics and how he’d like the platform to run?
Shannon McGregor: So, as you mentioned before, Musk took over, Twitter had not really been doing great financially for a while. Like other social platforms, their primary stream of revenue had been advertising and it just doesn’t necessarily lend itself as well to advertising as other platforms for a host of reasons, one of which mean that the base of users is quite small and niche compared to others. And I don’t have an MBA and I’ve never run a company, but it certainly seems to me the decisions Musk has made since he took over would make those revenue streams that were already struggling, even more so. As you said, tons of prominent advertisers have suspended their advertising accounts with Twitter, but I do think given their previous struggles, it does suggest that there might be room for a change of revenue stream. It seems clear that the paying for the check mark is not going to be it necessarily.
That’s not been, let’s say widely embraced by those on Twitter, and has caused all sorts of chaos with people being able to appear verified that are not necessarily, because they’ve purchased the check mark and et cetera. And I’ve been thinking about Twitter and how it might work and thinking about the proliferation of newsletters as well. And we saw a little bit of this, this idea of potentially a subscription model of getting maybe more or better access to some prominent users like journalists or politicians by paying Twitter and by proxy them some sort of subscription fee. But I think it’s been writ large across social platforms and even within the news media, it’s been really hard to get people to pay for something that’s been free to them for a very long time. And we’ve only seen really a couple newsrooms succeed with this.
And I would say those are pretty niche newsroom products, like the New York Times and Washington Post. And so I think it’s going to be a really difficult road ahead. I don’t know what sort of financial model will work, but I’m not sure that even just from a business perspective, it seems to me at least unlikely that Musk is going to be the person to sort it out given the financial struggles that some of his other companies have had as well and given how much debt he has, even just in running Twitter or being able to acquire Twitter itself.
Matt Grossmann: Academics of course also use Twitter regularly, but they have also been maybe among the first to leave in response to Musk’s changes. So, what’s the future of academics on Twitter and how might it change the role of academics being involved in the media as of course a primary platform for academics to engage with journalists as well?
Shannon McGregor: I think personally, as an academic, this has been one of the things that I’m saddest about with all the changes at Twitter, because academic Twitter has meant, if I’m being honest, a great deal to my career. When I started grad school and started researching Twitter and everyone said I was sort of crazy and it didn’t matter to research Twitter, even just in the short couple years that I was doing my PhD, the ways that Twitter has been important for me as an academic, especially as a junior academic and connecting with other people, learning about research, I have projects that I have co-authored, friends I have made because of academic Twitter. And so just personally, I really mourn this. I’m not saying it hasn’t been without troubles, it absolutely has. In some ways it has certainly exacerbated inequities within the academy as well.
But I also think it’s been a really important way for people to be able to connect and learn about one another’s research, especially across disciplines. And so I’m just sad about that and I worry about the impact of it on especially other junior scholars or scholars from more historically marginalized backgrounds, not being able to leverage the connected power of Twitter to make their work more widely seen and to make connections with other important people just within the academy. And then to your second question about how it might change the way that academics have access to or interact with journalists, I guess that’s another thing I’m really worried about. I have definitely been asked to write op-eds because of something I tweeted, gotten to know journalists, and they become both a source for my research and me a source for their news stories through Twitter.
And I think just as it has in academia in some regards the confluence of academics and journalists on Twitter has in some ways exacerbated existing inequalities of academic sourcing. I wonder how will journalists find academics to comment on news stories, provide context or background for important things happening in the world, find people to write op-eds about things that they’re related to, Google searches and using the same sources that they have, even if they found them for Twitter, it’s going to not continue to expand those sort of list of sources or people that they’re going to talk to. And so I worry about the negative impact of that because I think it might halt things where they are until some other alternative potentially emerges.
Matt Grossmann: What about the actual distribution of research? It seems like Twitter has been playing a big role in the rise of preprints being incorporated into news stories, and of course we just went through a long COVID experience where people both complained about that process, but also highlighted the potential to get evidence into the news. So, what’s the role of Twitter in the overall rise of, I guess, evidence-based or data-based journalism and the overall relationship between academic research and the news?
Shannon McGregor: I think it’s played an important one. And I think that, like I was talking about a minute ago, I think it’s expanded the disciplines and the types of academics that journalists have talked to. I think that academics and Twitter being in the same place has allowed though for there to be context around things like preprints or not peer reviewed articles in a way that I, at least just anecdotally, don’t really see. I don’t recall, before COVID especially, there being context in a story when a preprint was covered. Although I will say that definitely did happen, maybe not as much in the medical field, but certainly in the social sciences. And so I think it’s led to a fruitful conversation around context, around what are the different ways that academics put research out there and what do they mean and which parts of it should end up in journalistic coverage or not.
In the same vein, I think that Twitter is like the rest of our world right now in that it’s about an attention economy. And I think in some senses it’s incentivized academics to try and get attention from journalists and other actors. And so sometimes that means getting things out quicker with less rigor than we might normally hold ourselves to in the academy. And I think that certainly is concerning, but I don’t think by and large that has been a huge problem, at least as not as much in the social sciences as it has been a way of providing more context around these things. And I hope that doesn’t go away, because I think it’s important for us to at times share findings that we have that are really, really relevant as long as they’re within the context of that this hasn’t been peer reviewed, and journalists getting other academics to look at it.
I’ve been asked to do this for studies that are being covered in the news that haven’t necessarily been through peer review. Is it a stand-in for peer review? Absolutely not. But is it, I think, an important development in journalistic practice in terms of how science and social science is covered? Yeah, I think it has been. And so I think that we can see a net positive in that for sure.
Matt Grossmann: So, a lot of people, including all these people we’ve been talking about, academics, politicians and political professionals and journalists, seem to have a very strong love-hate relationship with Twitter. Along with in this meltdown period that you mentioned, along with all of the “Good riddance, we should leave the place,” was a lot of people claiming that Twitter had been transformational for their lives, that so much would be lost with its end. And it’s not unknown to have people change their views on Twitter, but the sentiment before that seemed to be a lot of this is a time waster and is doing a lot of harm. So, why do people have those strongly ambivalent views on the platform?
Shannon McGregor: That’s such a great question. I think it’s because, maybe this is the theme of this whole conversation, I think it’s because Twitter contains multitudes. Twitter has done all these things and have been transformational in people’s lives in the way that we’ve covered news stories, et cetera. But it’s also been a place where you have reply guys in your comments being like, “Well, what about this?” Or, “Well, actually it’s this.” It’s also been a place where there’s been really stupid and annoying main characters of the day, like the Coffee Bean Dad or Bean Dad. So, I think because it contains all these multitudes, it’s a thing that we can complain about, but complain about in a way that I think usually brings the Twitter community together. Shared venting, whatever profession you’re in, whenever people from the same profession get together, it is this shared venting.
Is it complaining? Absolutely. Are all those people going to leave their careers? No. This is part of building a group identity, is this venting. And I think for all the ways that, myself included, have been like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I just spent an hour on Twitter.” Or, “Ugh, it’s such a drag to say anything and be a woman on the internet and be reminded of what that’s like,” it has been so transformational. And I think it’s both being able to complain about it in this shared space and with all the shared memes of the way that we do complain about things on Twitter, is one of the things that’s made it joyful and transformational at the same time.
Matt Grossmann: So, you’ve personally had to react a research agenda to a changing political atmosphere and a changing media landscape repeatedly. So, this isn’t new to you, but talk about how you are a researcher in a world that’s constantly changing and what you think that will look like in the face of a platform that seems to be changing quite quickly?
Shannon McGregor: Two things. One, both deeply contextual in that my research on Twitter five years ago is about Twitter five years ago. And even five years ago, it was a different place than it was before a Musk took over. And I think that’s important, I would argue, for lots of media and social studies more broadly, but it’s certainly important in platforms due to the pace at which they change and the way people use them and new ones emerge. But I have also, and I think this is not just me, but I’m speaking about my own research, I’ve tried to make sure that my research that involves social media platforms or media speaks to larger questions about society and politics and power in ways that the platform plays a role in, but also has broader implications. And I think what it means is that now we’re all trying to figure out how are we going to recontextualize Twitter.
Is this going to be a moment? Is it going to fundamentally change the relationship between the press and politics as it plays out on Twitter? So far I don’t think it has, but it certainly may. And it certainly changed in these other ways that we’ve been discussing for the last little bit. And so I think trying to understand how that context changes what we can and cannot learn, if we’re studying either Twitter data itself or studying how different groups of people use it is going to be really important. But I think studying media of any type, and especially social media, means that you have to understand what certain platforms are for, whether it’s old ones or as ones change or new ones emerge. So, some of the things that I’ve been trying to pay attention to that are not Twitter for quite some time is also more visual media.
That’s much harder to study, certainly from a quantitative perspective. Instagram, TikTok, even Facebook are much more highly visual mediums. And the struggles around that I think are really important, and they’re really understudied as compared to Twitter, because Twitter is much easier for us to study because, A, the data has been more available, but it’s also primarily text-based. And so it’s been easier for us to study. One silver lining of this is that it may push academics to overcome the hurdles that have prevented us from more fully studying other social media platforms because Twitter was so available and important in this particular regard.
And so that could be potentially some silver lining to all this chaos, but I think it will take some time to see how this shift changes the context and how we might contextualize what’s happening that we can see on Twitter now and the role of Twitter in society and politics now. And also how lasting it’s going to be and in which arenas has it made a deep change? Are we experiencing a deep change? In which arenas are we not really yet?
Matt Grossmann: So, is there any, I guess, realtime data that you’ll be waiting for first, or things that you’ll be doing next to analyze the latest set of transitions, or that you are expecting from others or anything else we didn’t get to?
Shannon McGregor: So, one of the things that we brought up, the far right earlier, a project that I’ve been working on with a couple of my students here, and Allison Archer, who’s a professor at the University of Houston, is looking at how Trump used his tweets when he was in the presidency to legitimate far right outlets like OAN and Newsmax. We find evidence of that both in increased coverage by mainstream outlets of those far right outlets, also in increases of appearances by the GOP, members of Congress on those outlets. And I think what that shows us is that in any social platform that has this confluence of powerful people, that powerful people can use it to push their particular agenda or perspective in ways that have implications widely outside the platform itself. And I think that will another platform emerges that has that same power, I think is going to be the thing that I’m trying to pay attention to the most.
And I think it’s also going to be one of the things that I’m really watching for and thinking about is so far Musk hasn’t turned off the academic API in the way that people access tweets for research, but who knows, he could at any moment. So, I think thinking about what that potential lack of data availability is going to mean for researchers is something that I’m also really paying attention to, because I’m worried about it because I think even if Twitter dies tomorrow, we really need to understand what has just happened to be able to contextualize it. And so I’m thinking about data access in regards to just the platform as well.
And I think one of the things that I’m really looking for, and we discussed this earlier, but I think is are there going to be mass exodus is of the groups of people who have made Twitter as socially and politically important as it has been? Because that will mean that if what you want to study is society and power, which are the things that I’m really interested in as sort of the root of it, then you’re going to have to go someplace else. And what is going to be the struggle for another platform or medium to be the place where those folks go? I think it’s going to be an important one, because without a doubt, for all the bills and all the goods, Twitter has been that place.
And so will something else emerge? And who’s going to be in charge of that? Because we see the impact in Musk and Jack Dorsey before him and Mark Zuckerberg, of a single person having so much control over these really important spaces for politics. And sometimes the devil you know is at least more comfortable than the one you don’t.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you liked this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, all linked on our website. How News and Social Media Shape American Voters, How Misperceptions and Online Norms Drive Cancel Culture, Did Facebook Really Polarize and Misinform the 2016 Electorate, How News and Social Media Shape American Voters, and How the News Economy Drives Local News. Thanks to Shannon McGregor for joining me. Please check out Legitimating a Platform and then listen in next time.
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