Go where? Quitting Twitter easier said than done

Paul Ricard, Theo Mattiolo and Malia Kounkou, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Apr 27 2022 05:15 AM

An illustration photo of Twitter landing page taken in Belgrade, Serbia, April 26, 2022. Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, acquired Twitter for roughly $44 billion. Andrej Cukic, EPA-EFE
An illustration photo of Twitter landing page taken in Belgrade, Serbia, April 26, 2022. Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, acquired Twitter for roughly $44 billion. Andrej Cukic, EPA-EFE

Quit Twitter. That's what some users spooked by tech billionaire Elon Musk's purchase of the social platform say they plan to do. 

But Twitter's unparalleled audience means that is difficult for many who want their voice to be heard and influence the global debate.

- Quit Twitter, really? -

Since the announcement on Monday that Twitter had accepted Musk's bid for the company some users have declared their intention to leave Twitter over his plans to unfetter speech on the platform.

"It’s going to become an even more lawless hateful xenophobic, bigoted, misogynistic space," English actress and activist Jameela Jamil tweeted to her million followers.

Promises to go Twitter-free trended under hashtags like #LeaveTwitter.

But many are skeptical.

"The people who say they are #leavingtwitter in India because @elonmusk bought it, are they same people who said they will leave India if @narendramodi becomes the PM. Twice. And NEVER did!" tweeted Indian author and columnist Shefali Vaidya to his 665,000 followers. 

In mid-April, French journalist Nicolas Henin (52,000 followers) vowed he'd quit the platform if Musk buys Twitter.

"I still haven't taken a firm decision," he told AFP on Tuesday.

"For one, there's the impression of deserting and then there's the lack of an alternative."

- Go where? -

No other platform can easily replace Twitter for those who leave.

"What makes Twitter is the community, its 436 million users," said Leila Morch, Research Project Coordinator at Stanford University's Content Policy and Society Lab. 

In terms of popularity, Discord with its 300 million users is the closest to Twitter. It supports online communities, but in contrast to Twitter it isn't an open platform: entry into each group requires an invitation.

Mastodon, launched in 2016, is a Twitter clone without advertising and whose source code is open. However, the platform's server is much smaller and it only has 670,000 users.

Other platforms such as Getter, Parler and Truth Social, which Donald Trump founded after being banned from Twitter in January 2021, cater to the US right wing.

American conservatives have largely welcomed Musk's bid for Twitter.

Tumblr, another social network and micro-blogging site that has been around since 2007 but fallen in popularity, could become a refuge for those who abandon Twitter.

- Who is on Twitter? - 

"Twitter attracts the media world, a mix of journalists and people, the world of political and economic decision-makers" as well as "influencers", said sociologist Dominique Boullier at Sciences Po university in Paris.

While these "opinion makers" represent only a minority of users they are the ones who "attract the general public" and "cause things to go viral", he said.

Boullier believes Musk wants to serve "people fond of shocking, controversial and alternative news" who have been left lacking since Trump's Twitter banishment.

- What freedom of expression? -

For Leila Morch, Musk's contested takeover of Twitter has one positive element: "People are realizing that content moderation is political and that poses questions for society."

Twitter will have to comply with Europe's new laws curbing the power of big tech, a senior official said Tuesday.

"Whether on online harassment, the sale of counterfeit products... child pornography, or calls for acts of terrorism ... Twitter will have to adapt to our European regulations which do not exist in the United States," EU commissioner Thierry Breton told AFP.

He was referring to the new Digital Services Act, a major piece of EU legislation ensuring tougher consequences when platforms host banned content.

But for Morch, the question is broader.

"Content moderation provides tools, but it is a debate on free speech that is needed: what do we want and don't want to see online?" she said.

She drew an analogy to how sexual aggression is defined legally in the real world.

"That took years of research and putting in place rules and, today, people agree. But we haven't done that online. We have asked: 'What is freedom of expression. What are the limits?'"