Media coverage might be more informative if it ignored some tweets.
What happens when a person with insufficient relevant knowledge and experience takes over the leadership a powerful entity that impacts people worldwide? And how should the media cover such leaders? We are seeing this play out with Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter.
Musk’s comments about Twitter and content moderation show that he hasn’t been following the debate or reading the research that has developed around that topic. And his statements about it keep shifting and are internally inconsistent: for example, while claiming to be for maximal free speech, he has also said that measures might be taken in cases where “perhaps there’s a lot of controversy.” Here is what he said during one interview:
… if it’s.. uh… a gray area, I would say, l would say let the tweet exist. But… obviously… in a case where perhaps there’s a lot of controversy where perhaps you’d not want to necessarily promote that tweet, you know… I’m not saying I have all the answers here, but I do think that we want to be very reluctant to delete things and be very cautious with permanent bans. I think time outs are better than permanent bans.
Social media platforms are already cautious with permanent bans, and impose suspensions (or “time outs”) in an effort to get users to change behavior that would lead to permanent bans. What’s startling in his comments is the notion that tweets should not “necessarily” be “promoted” if they involve controversy. It’s not clear if he’s referring to tweets that spark controversy, or address topics around which there’s a lot of controversy; in any case, though, is he advocating for more content moderation in cases “where there’s a lot of controversy”?
The lack of clarity and shifting nature of Musk’s tweets is reminiscent of Donald Trump’s tweets before and during his presidency. And, as then, the media is treating them as newsworthy, worthy of reporting and analyzing, even when they seem to be random musings, rather than specific policy proposals.
The media coverage of Musk’s tweets is part of a vicious cycle.
After Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, it was startling to note how many other things could get covered, instead of his tweets. The media still reported on his acts and official statements as president; they just didn’t have a stream of confusing whiplashing comments that they felt obligated to amplify, too. Now, the coverage of Musk’s tweets echoes the earlier pattern: Musk tweets; journalists report his comments and amplify them. By reporting on them, they push them well beyond the boundaries of Twitter—which reaches, after all, only about 1 in 5 adults in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.
What if journalists didn’t do that? (Those who need or want to know what Musk is saying, whether for their jobs or their general edification, could still follow him on Twitter. We wouldn’t suddenly not know what he’s thinking.)
Needless to say, reporting on a U.S. president’s tweets presents a different calculus than reporting on those of someone who has yet to take over as CEO of a social media company. But, maybe, if less were written about Musk’s tweets, more could be written about the actions of other CEOs who already have great power over social media platforms that reach far more people around the world. 81% of Americans use YouTube, for example; when was the last time you saw multiple articles about that platform’s current content moderation practices, rather than unclear hints about possible future directions? YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicky doesn’t comment publicly, off the cuff, on policy or politics or cultural clashes, but her views and actions deserve no less coverage than Musk’s.
Of course, people use different forms of social media for different purposes, in part based on the tools’ own affordances, so reporting on Twitter is not the same as reporting on YouTube. And I don’t mean to minimize in any way the impact of a platform on which one in five Americans (and so many other people around the world) communicate with each other and share information. Still, the media coverage of Musk’s tweets is disproportionate and counterproductive.
According to the Pew Research Center, “most Twitter news consumers in the U.S. say using the platform has increased their understanding of current events in the last year, but around a third say it has increased their stress levels.” Again, though, most Americans are not on Twitter. Journalists’ own stress levels might go up every time Musk tweets, but most Americans’ wouldn’t, if the journalists didn’t report his every comment. The journalists play a large role in directing our attention, and the media attention might be making Musk tweet even more. Maybe journalists could help themselves—and the rest of us—by amplifying him less.