Canadians tweeted through elections, a pandemic and catastrophic flooding. Could that change?

Canadians tweeted through elections, a pandemic and catastrophic flooding. Could that change?

It’s too early to tell if we’re witnessing Twitter’s death knell, or if billionaire Elon Musk’s tumultuous takeover of the social network is just an anomaly in its history.

What’s clear, however, is that Musk’s unorthodox approach to his new role as “Chefwit” has already driven some prominent users off the platform (and spooked some advertisers and shareholders into the bargain).

Additionally, New York market research firm Insider Intelligence predicts that 14 percent of US-based users could leave the platform over the next two years due to technical issues or an increase in hateful content.

In just over a week, Musk suspended and then restored the Twitter accounts of several prominent journalists, tweeted his Prosecute/Fauci pronouns, which sparked a backlash, and conducted a poll asking users if he would serve as CEO resign or not (his promise to be upheld was yet to be confirmed at the time of publication).

Elon Musk is wearing a suit and holding a microphone.
Elon Musk, CEO of Twitter, is pictured in an August file photo. Musk, whose acquisition of the social media network closed for $44 billion earlier this year, has made a series of surprising moves that have divided public opinion over his tenure as owner. (Carina Johansen/NTB Scanpix via The Associated Press)

All of this happened on a platform that is also seen as crucial for political movements like that Arabic spring while drawing criticism for its role in spreading misinformation.

It has played a role for local, provincial and state officials who have used the platform to quickly disseminate timely information related to events as mundane as New Year’s Eve Fireworks announcements and as extraordinary as the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires.

Though it’s often viewed in a negative light because of its perceived contribution to increasing polarization in society, Timothy Caulfield, a Canadian research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said there would still be real loss should the Collapsing Twitter user base.

That’s because there is currently no platform that has reached the same critical mass of users, which includes governments, public health officials, academics and research institutions, he said.

“Before Elon Musk took it on, there was already a misinformation problem on Twitter, but it’s certainly gotten worse,” Caulfield said.

“It’s gotten messier and chaotic. And the concern is that it becomes so problematic that people who have credible information will leave the platform and then you’re just left with this sea of ​​noise.”

dr  Deena Hinshaw removes a mask as she prepares to speak at a lectern during a news conference.
dr Deena Hinshaw, then Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, provides a COVID-19 update on September 3, 2021 in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

In the early days of the pandemic, as concerned Canadians sought advice on an ongoing, world-changing phenomenon, health officials took to the platform to tweet vital information in the intervals between press conferences.

The Twitter account of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s former chief medical officer of health, was used to communicate policy changes, COVID-19 case counts and the latest information on vaccine rollouts. dr Mark Joffe, Hinshaw’s successor, has stated he will use the platform to communicate health advice in a similar way.

Even in times of crisis, local authorities used the platform to communicate directly with residents. Former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose early social media skills were widely credited as vital to his successful mayoral bid, used the platform to communicate critical information when heavy rains sparked a crisis in 2013.

“Major flood risk in Calgary,” the former mayor tweeted on June 20, 2013. “Stay tuned in.”

Conversely, Twitter has also faced criticism during times of crisis, such as the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, where RCMP used a tweet instead of an emergency alert.

And over the past decade, researchers have increasingly observed the more direct role that social media plays in shaping debates about elections and politics.

In the midst of the last federal election, Twitter flagged as “media rigging” a video posted by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, which was then described by then-New Democratic Party candidate Charlie Angus as a “real shot across the bow” over the role the the American social media giant was ready to play in the Canadian election.

Former US President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter in early 2021 after a mob of his supporters attacked the US Capitol. But Musk signaled his dislike for the social media company making such a decision, calling it a “morally bad decision” and “extremely stupid.”

Free the bird

Several prominent publications have speculated that Twitter is now in dire straits, and Musk himself said the company is losing $4 million a day. Some have already made the decision to detach from the platform, sometimes in favor of network alternatives like the similar Mastodon and Post.

Paula Simons, an independent senator for Alberta, said she has been on the platform since 2009.

She said Twitter has been a big part of her practice as a journalist — Simons worked for decades as a journalist and columnist for CBC News and the Edmonton Journal — and used it to tweet city council debates, criminal trials and even live from the Senate floor.

Independent Alberta Senator Paula Simons pictured in a 2021 file photo. Simons said social media has not only changed the way journalism is done, but also the way social relationships are organized . (Mike McArthur/CBC)

But in recent weeks, Simons said she was disappointed to see Musk’s approach to content moderation and his recent move to suspend journalists.

Because of that, Simons said she’s opened an account with Mastadon and will be downscaling Twitter later this year by hosting her regular Twitter contest called #yegquest in a sort of farewell “brand of glory.” Despite this, she said she will find the transition difficult.

“I think for a lot of people who have put a lot of social capital into these sites, this is going to be a very, very tough transition,” she said. “We are an entire generation born and raised on these platforms.

“Losing her as we knew her in dramatic ways will be a difficult emotional transition for many people. For me it was a kind of mourning process.”

Twitter’s audience isn’t as big as some of its competitors like TikTok, Instagram or Facebook, and Canadians looking to communicate online will still be able to use these platforms.

But Caulfield said the alternatives will still leave something unique should Musk’s big move not pay off.

“It really has a unique place in our information environment. If it’s completely lost or just becomes so polluted that it’s completely unreliable, I think we lose something,” he said.

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