Summary: Elon Musk has demonstrated contempt for free speech in general, and journalism in particular, with his behavior at Twitter. He is also demonstrating why it is foolhardy for anyone to rely on centralized platforms to create and distribute vital information. Journalists — among many information providers and users — should move to decentralized systems where they have control of what they say and how they distribute it. And philanthropic organizations have a major role to play. Here is a way forward.
Near the end of 2022, Elon Musk issued an edict to the journalism community. Obey me, he said, or you will be banned from posting on Twitter.
This should have been a pivotal moment in media history — an inflection point when journalists realized how dangerous it is to put their fates in the hands of people who claim to revere free speech but use their power to control it. It should have been the moment when media companies decided to take back control of their social media presence.
A few journalists — principally the ones whose Twitter accounts were suspended or otherwise restricted — understood the threat. And several of the Big Journalism news organizations issued (feeble) protests.
Beyond that, thanks to a combination of journalistic cowardice, inertia and calculation, business as usual prevailed. The journalists whose accounts were fully restored are back to tweeting, though some remain banned and/or restricted. Their organizations never stopped using the platform even when their employees were being restricted.
Based on current evidence, then, Musk has won this battle: except for a few individuals, Big Journalism has acceded to his edicts.
Many journalism organizations and public entities, such as local governments, believe Twitter is essential because it’s a place people know they can turn to when there’s big news — and find information from “verified accounts” that (barring a hack) ensure the source is who it’s claiming to be. So, they tell themselves, they have to stick around. This isn’t just short-sighted. It’s foolish.
Musk’s antics could easily lead to the worst of all worlds for anyone who’s come to rely on Twitter distribution. If you have the slightest concern for the future of freedom of expression, he’s already shown his hypocrisy, such as his capricious decision (since rescinded, at least for now) to block even links to some competing social media services. And advertisers have appropriately fled a service where right-wing extremism has been given a major boost; where mass firings of key employees threaten the site’s technical stability; and where at least some formerly avid users (like me) have moved on.
It will be ironic, to put it mildly, if Twitter disintegrates despite journalists’ refusal to exercise their own free expression rights — forcing a mass, chaotic migration rather than the obviously better answer: Develop a Plan B, and use it as an escape hatch sooner than later.
All of which is why I implore the journalists and journalism organizations, above all at this crucial point, to rethink what they’re doing — and move starting today to reclaim independence. I also ask well-resourced outsiders to help make this happen, especially when it comes to the many journalists and news organizations that lack the bandwidth or money to do this themselves.
Even a “Good” Twitter is Risky
Suppose, against all odds, that Twitter somehow survives Musk’s predations and becomes a clean, well-lit place for respectful discourse. The risks don’t disappear. They’ll only grow. And they’ve been apparent for years.
The risks are endemic to the mega-corporate, scalable-or-nothing, highly centralized version of the Internet that has emerged in recent years, and we need to keep them in the forefront. At the top of the list: Any centralized platform is subject to the whims of the person or people who control it. This isn’t news to those who’ve been paying attention, and some of them have been warning about the dangers for years. In a way, Musk has done us a favor by making it crystal clear.
Mike Masnick, who’s been on the case for a long time now, recently spelled out in chapter and verse why it’s crazy to rely on centralized platforms. He looked at the current alternatives, with a major focus on “federated” systems like Mastodon, where many people and organizations can run servers that talk with each other — and, this is key, where users can’t be locked in. In the “fediverse,” we users can’t be controlled because we can move, anytime we wish, to a different server — and take our relationships with us.
I joined a Mastodon server (called an “instance” in Mastodon jargon) called “mastodon.social” — you can find me there at this URL: https://mastodon.social/@dangillmor — and my full username is @firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re already in the broader community. Others in the journalism world have signed onto instances such as “journa.host” and “newsie.social” — and there are many, many more.
It’s way too early to know whether Mastodon and its underpinning, a protocol (technical rules of the road) called ActivityPub, is the ultimate way forward. There are risks with any online system, and the Mastodon community will face their share. I’ve been impressed with, and Mike Masnick’s thorough analysis highlights, the resilience Mastodon has demonstrated already.
But at least two things are clear. The risks of giving up your autonomy to billionaire sociopaths are in your face at this point. And it is not remotely too early for those who rely on Twitter to find alternatives they control.
How Journalism’s Migration Should Proceed
Habits are tough to break. Inertia is one of the most powerful barriers to progress. But we can, and we should, realize that making this transition is well worth the time and effort. The rewards will be so great that we’ll wonder one day how we could have gotten ourselves into a situation that required such a shift.
Fear of the unfamiliar feeds inertia. And Mastodon is — emphatically — not a clone of Twitter. It has some flaws, from my perspective, that I trust will be addressed sooner rather than later; and in part because it’s based on open-source software, the pace of improvement already looks spectacular to me.
Journalists have to overcome their own trepidation. If they give it some time, not a lot by any means, they’ll be more than comfortable enough that the somewhat understandable early-days urge to retreat back into the Twitter comfort zone will go away.
In other words, please just get on with it. You’ll be fine. Here’s a basic plan of action:
First: Organizations with sufficient financial and technical resources should create their own Mastodon instances. At the same time, smaller journalism organizations — especially the rapidly expanding collection of non-profit sites — should set up a co-operative network. (More on this below).
Second: Verify the identities and bona-fides of the journalists. One of Musk’s more ill-considered interventions at Twitter — turning the verified-user system into a giant swamp — made Mastodon an even more obvious refuge. I won’t get into details here, and maybe I’m missing something important, but it appears to be trivially easy to verify Mastodon accounts by connecting user accounts on Mastodon servers to the news organization’s existing web presence.
Third: For the time being, keep posting to Twitter (and the rest of their social media accounts). But journalists should be actively using those accounts to let their audiences know that the best places to find rapid-response posts also include their Mastodon accounts and, of course, their own websites — and that, someday in the near future, the Twitter feed will be replaced by Mastodon.
Fourth: Set a date for the cut-over — ideally in collaboration with their peers — not longer than six months from now. And when the day arrives, do it.
That’s not the end of the process, of course. Journalists will need to help their audiences use Mastodon, just as they themselves learned. Again, while there is a learning curve, and it isn’t the same as Twitter, it won’t take long for people to adjust. (Let’s be real: If people can use their computers after a massive operating system “upgrade”, Mastodon will be a snap.)
The word “collaboration” is key here. This is a job for the entire journalism craft/industry, which created critical mass on Twitter over the years by just showing up randomly and, at a certain point, turning the site into something resembling a central nervous system of news.
De-emphasizing Twitter, and ultimately leaving it, needs more organization. Musk is surely counting on media companies to stick around on the principle that, well, there’s no other game in town with the same critical mass. This is no longer true, if it ever was. (I’ve been told by news people that Facebook, in the days when it actively promoted news in users’ feeds, drove vastly more traffic to their sites than Twitter ever has.)
Collaboration in journalism is growing, but it should become second nature. If ever there was a time to get together and take back control of the craft’s work, it should be now. Not collaborating will give Musk and people like him leverage to divide and conquer. Even if it was difficult to make this transition, and it isn’t, the alternative is ceding control to sociopaths.
A Major Opportunity for Philanthropic Investment
I shouldn’t have to say this, but the leadership for a migration off Twitter to Mastodon should come from the organizations whose editors complained about Musk’s treatment of their journalists. It’s pathetic that most of them didn’t follow through with actions, not just words.
So who will? The obvious candidates are major philanthropic foundations and civic-minded wealthy individuals.
Last month, I sent a note to people I know at several philanthropies. I wrote, in part:
This would be the perfect time to fund what could easily be a self-sustaining cooperative that sets up and operates Mastodon “instances” (servers) on behalf of journalism organizations that could verify their own journalists. That would solve a lot of problems, and restore (some) genuine independence to the craft at a time when capricious media owners like Musk are challenging it.
We can debate whether the co-op business model is best-suited for a project like this, though I believe it’s ideal. What we shouldn’t debate is whether journalism and its defenders need to move, right away, to deal with an immediate problem in a way that would have major long-term benefits. Helping journalism regain the control it misguidedly gave away — and do it in a way that increases the supply of easy-to-find information that benefits the public — is plainly beneficial for everyone but media monopolists and misinformation purveyors.
Foundations, please step up now, while people still understand the need — and before journalists, whose attention spans are notoriously short, settle back into their short-sighted patterns.
As noted earlier in this piece, it isn’t just journalists who’ve come to rely on Twitter. Birds of a feather on various social and professional topics have flocked together there. We all need to help ensure that “Black Twitter” and “Science Twitter” — and so many more — have a way forward, too. They have become a vital source of information not just for the wider public but within their own ranks (or that relatively small part of the public that uses Twitter, anyway). As Bloomberg’s Lisa Jarvis wrote recently, “Science Twitter needs a new home.”
Meanwhile, countless government agencies also use the birdsite as a vehicle for messaging of all kinds. In situations where people want the vital news — such as forest fires, storms, etc. — Twitter has become one of the default places to check.
They, too, can and should migrate to services like Mastodon. They should plan collaboratively to cut over to their own verified instances, in an orderly way that gives their constituents notice and time to get adjusted to the new system.
The federal government could lead, given its greater resources, but it will take a lot of work by a lot of people to get smaller governments and agencies to turn off the “free” websites they now support and migrate to places that have setup costs, however modest, and maintenance requirements.
Which makes the need for collaboration just as great, if not more so, when it comes to public agencies. Happily, governments at all levels have associations which they sometimes call “conferences” — such as the National Conference of State Legislatures — that might be appropriate organizers and hosts of collaborative Mastodon instances.
Philanthropies — especially community foundations — could play a vital role in re-creating critical masses beyond journalism. It would be a dazzling display of civic spirit, for example, if the Silicon Valley Community Foundation funded Mastodon installations for local governments and agencies. And what if American Association for the Advancement of Science offered support for moving that community, and its burgeoning audience, from the risky, centralized Twitter to more decentralized environs?
Get Started, Soon
The best time for journalists and others to have recognized the threat of centralized systems run by unreliable, untrustworthy dictators would have been years ago. The next best time is tomorrow.