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

It’s too early to say whether we’re witnessing the death knell of Twitter, or whether billionaire Elon Musk’s turbulent takeover of the social network is just a blip in its history.

What is clear, though, is Musk’s unorthodox approach to his new role of “chief twit” has already driven some prominent users off the platform (and has spooked some advertisers and shareholders to boot).

Further to that, New York market-research firm Insider Intelligence predicts 14 per cent of U.S.-based users could leave the platform over the next two years due to technical issues or a rise in hateful content.

In a little more than a week, Musk suspended and then reinstated the Twitter accounts of several prominent journalists, tweeted his pronouns were Prosecute/Fauci, which sparked a backlash, and ran a poll asking users whether or not he should step down as CEO (his follow-through on that promise had yet to be borne out as of publication time). 

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

All of it happened on a platform that has simultaneously been credited as being pivotal in political movements like the Arab Spring while drawing criticism for its role in spreading misinformation.

It has played a role for municipal, provincial and federal officials, who have used the platform to quickly disseminate timely information tied to events as routine as New Year’s Eve fireworks announcements and as extrodinary as the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires. 

Despite it often being viewed in a negative light for its perceived contributions to increased polarization in society, Timothy Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said there would still be a real loss should Twitter’s user base collapse.

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

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

“It’s gotten messier and more chaotic. And the concern is that it’s going to get so problematic that people who do have credible information are going to leave the platform, and then you’re just going to be left with this sea of noise.”

Dr. Deena Hinshaw is taking off 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 in Edmonton on Sept. 3, 2021. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

During the early days of the pandemic, as anxious Canadians sought guidance about an ongoing, world-altering phenomenon, health officials used the platform to tweet critical information in the interim periods between press conferences. 

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

Municipal officials used the platform to communicate directly with residents amid times of crisis, too. Former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose early social media prowess was largely credited as being elemental to his successful mayoral bid, used the platform to communicate essential information when heavy rainfall led to crisis in 2013.

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

Conversely, Twitter has also seen its usage criticized in moments of crisis, such as in Nova Scotia’s mass shooting, wherein RCMP used a tweet instead of an emergency alert.

And over the past decade, researchers increasingly have kept tabs on the more direct role social media is playing in shaping debate around elections and politics.

In the middle of the last federal election, Twitter flagged a video posted by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland as “manipulated media,” which at that time was called a “real shot across the bow” by then-New Democratic Party candidate Charlie Angus in terms of the role the American social media giant was willing to play in Canadian elections.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump was banned from Twitter in early 2021 after a mob of his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol. But Musk signalled his distaste for the social media company making such a decision, calling it a “morally bad decision” and “foolish in the extreme.”

Setting the bird free

Several prominent publications have speculated that Twitter now finds itself in dire straits, and Musk himself has said the company loses $4 million a day. Some have already made the decision to disengage from the platform, sometimes in favour of networking alternatives such as the similar Mastodon and Post.

Paula Simons, an Independent senator for Alberta, said she’s been on the platform since 2009.

She said Twitter had 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 has used it to live-tweet city council debates, criminal trials and even from the Senate floor.

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

But over the last few weeks, Simons said she’s been disappointed to see Musk’s approach to content moderation and his recent move to suspend journalists.

For that reason, Simons said she has started an account on Mastadon and will scale off Twitter at the end of the year, running her regular Twitter contest dubbed #yegquest in a sort of “blaze of glory” goodbye. Still, she said she’ll find the transition difficult.

“I think for a lot of people who’ve invested a lot of social capital in these sites, this is going to be a very, very hard shift,” she said. “We’re a whole generation that has been born and raised on these platforms.

“Losing them as we knew them dramatically, is going to be a difficult emotional transition for a lot of people. For me, it’s been kind of a grieving process.”

Twitter’s audience is not as large as some of its competitors, such as TikTok, Instagram or Facebook, and Canadians looking to communicate online will still be able to utilize those platforms.

But Caulfield said the alternatives still will leave behind something unique should Musk’s grand gambit not pay off.

“It really does have a unique place in our information environment. If it’s completely lost, or if it just becomes so polluted that it’s completely untrustworthy, I do think we’re losing something,” he said.

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