The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elon Musk’s confused, self-serving vision of journalism on Twitter

(Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters)

Why are you reading The Washington Post right now?

For some of you — not many, I’d assume — it’s because you want to be mad about this subject. You don’t read The Post normally and are reading these words now because you’re looking for something to elevate and complain about. For most of you, though, I suspect the motivation is different. You’re reading The Post because you are confident in what it presents, having come to trust the institution over months or years.

Perhaps that’s not true of me personally, which is certainly fair. But you assume that if The Post is allowing me to write under its masthead that I deserve some of that accrued trust. I hope I do. I try to demonstrate that I deserve it.

And that, really, is what sets The Post and other traditional journalism outlets apart: a commitment to try to represent what’s happening honestly and fairly, to hold ourselves accountable when we make mistakes and to use our platforms to hold power to account. This is hard to do and the very process of trying to do it makes our jobs harder. When we announce and correct our mistakes, that becomes fodder for sowing distrust about all of the things we get correct. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson is more trusted than The Post by many Americans in part because he never admits the myriad things he gets wrong.

The effort to sow distrust in outlets like The Post often derives from the third focus of our work, the interest in demanding accountability from people given political or economic power. It is also that focus, almost certainly, that has led to Elon Musk’s effort to uproot the way in which news is shared and consumed on Twitter.

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As I wrote last month, soon after Musk took over ownership of the platform, Twitter is unique in the social media space. It is centered on news (and particularly political news) in a way that other outlets are not. That’s in part because it is a place that many journalists have come to rely on for sourcing and community. I can attest to the utility of the platform as a place where information very quickly trickles up, where a person who stumbles onto a newsworthy event can quickly present it to reporters to be vetted and expanded upon. There’s already a stereotype centered on this quality: the news producer who jumps into the replies to a newsworthy event and seeks permission to use footage or a photo. Twitter is useful for this kind of information filtration.

When Musk assumed control of the platform, though, he almost immediately announced a change that would upend how information flows on Twitter. Verification — the little check mark on Twitter that identifies a user as being who they say they are — would change. The murky process that allowed people to become verified would be cracked open, with anyone who wanted to get the little check mark able to do so, for a price. Pay Musk $8 a month and you can become verified, just like me or The Washington Post.

But then there’s the flip side: to remain verified, you also have to pay the $8.

This aspect of the change prompted head-scratching within the media universe, since the point of verification wasn’t to aid us immediately; it was to aid Twitter. Verification emerged after a flood of fake accounts made it difficult to determine which account was the real Post. Was it @washingtonpost or @thewashingtonpost? Was Donald Trump’s account @donaldtrump or @realdonaldtrump — the former president’s effort to inject his own verification into his username, however futilely. Yes, it’s good for me that people know @pbump is me, but it’s more useful for Twitter. It’s Twitter, in essence, leveraging The Post’s reputation by establishing that when the paper and I create content for Twitter, we are doing so with similar expectations as we might for washingtonpost.com.

It was baffling, then, that Musk not only would strip verification from members of the media granted that status by Twitter for Twitter’s benefit but that he also framed his decision to do so as striking out against entitled elites. This was obviously in part a function of his worldview and his politics, but as he made clear over the weekend, it was also very simply an effort to disrupt the institutional power of traditional media.

To wit:

This makes no sense. Musk has pledged that verified users will enjoy more reach for their posts and content, meaning that nonverified users won’t. But that anonymous people could provide insight to what was happening in the world — could represent what was happening in a way that aided journalists tasked with reporting on events — was a central reason Twitter became both big and useful. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, there were numerous posts on social media about where and how Russia was building up its military presence, democratized, on-the-ground reporting that aided major media outlets to inform more people about what was happening. Burying information from casual users will obscure, not improve, information sharing.

We can’t ignore the broader context here. Musk, as one of the richest people in the world and one who is assertive about ginning up attention, has been a target of a great deal of critical reporting. That’s been particularly true as he’s become more deliberate about inserting himself into America’s political conversation. Musk, like so many powerful people, would like to smash competing power centers, be they competitors, worker unions or the traditional press. Seizing Twitter and upending it is a good way to do that.

Musk’s concept of how journalism will work on Twitter in his new era is that the tool set created as “Birdwatch” — rebranded to “Community Notes” under Musk — will allow claims on the site to be challenged and contextualized. You can see it at work on this tweet of Musk’s about the “Community Notes” branding itself.

This is a good idea! In 2016, I created a tool that would do that for Trump’s tweets. Unlike my iteration, which was focused on one user and written by me, this is a sort of Wikipedia-ification of contextualizing that began before Musk took over. But it is necessarily slow and, like Wikipedia, dependent on the community of moderators. It also doesn’t demonstrably affect the tweet itself, meaning that a claim that, say, “the election was stolen” would simply be countered with “there’s no evidence of that,” as was the case with similar tweets in 2020.

There’s also the question of how Community Notes will themselves be moderated. One appeared on a tweet from Musk focused on advertisers bailing from the platform. But then it vanished. Was this Musk playing by a different set of rules? How democratized can “journalism” be when it’s happening on Musk’s playing field? The Post is owned by a billionaire and we have retained our independence, covering him and his businesses critically. In part that’s because Jeff Bezos understood what The Post was when he bought it. Will Twitter under Musk work the same way?

Again, Musk’s war on the journalists who use media started not with the amplification of Community Notes but with the revision of verification. He seems to believe that journalists view it as a mark of esteem and will suffer from losing it. Then, later, he wrapped this into a vision of how the new journalism will work.

That’s the order in which he wants things to happen. Further gut the traditional media as a place granted respect and then figure out something that can replace it — something ultimately under his control.

It’s no wonder that the political right is very enthusiastic about this plan. It is also not a surprise that Musk on Monday tweeted out an endorsement of the GOP in this year’s midterm elections.

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