Twitter performs a ‘vital’ function in Canada’s democracy, and authorities should do extra to manage in face of Musk’s ‘roller-coaster,’ say observers

Twitter plays a “significant role in Canada’s democracy,” and the tumultuous fallout stemming from Elon Musk’s recent $44-billion acquisition of the platform highlights “the failure of governments” to regulate these platforms, says Sonja Solomun of McGill University.

Solomun, who serves as deputy director of McGill’s Center for Media, Technology and Democracy, said Musk’s controversial acquisition of the platform on Oct. 28, and the tumultuous events that have followed, illustrate “how the decisions of an American-based company do have ripple effects and have significant impact in countries around the world.”

Solomun said, with research from the centre’s Media Ecosystem Observatory having found that Twitter is the third most popular place where Canadians get their political news, combined with the platform’s outsized use by politicians and academics, the “significant changes” planned by Musk mean Canadians “ have a right to be concerned about the direction that those changes are heading.”

Dimitri Pavlounis, director of research at CIVIX, an organization that teaches civic and digital literacy, said that one of the most urgent concerns for his organization is the confusion stemming from changes to the verification system.

Dimitri Pavlounis, director of research at CIVIX, an organization that teaches civic and digital literacy, said one of the most urgent concerns for his organization is the confusion stemming from changes to the verification system. Photo courtesy of CIVIX

Previously, a blue checkmark on a Twitter account indicated that it had been verified by Twitter as the person it claimed to be. Musk has announced a series of evolving plans to alter that system, allowing the checkmark to be purchased for a monthly fee while possibly introducing other verification methods on the platform.

“We were finally at the place where I think, by and large, people were coming to understand the blue check to mean not that the content produced by the account was vetted or accurate, but simply that the check mark meant the identity of the user had been confirmed,” said Pavlounis. “That’s an incredibly important piece of context to have, knowing that the identity of the person I’m reading or interacting with is who they actually say they are.”

Pavlounis noted that Twitter had considered rolling out some of those changes on the day before the midterm elections in the United States, but said, “thankfully, they didn’t.”

“I think there was some internal and external pushback to not do that,” he said. “But the fact that was even considered for a second is a sign to me that maybe the current leadership might not quite understand the stakes of what it is that they’re dealing with.”

Musk’s Twitter feed is ‘a roller-coaster’

Governments and MPs are prominent users of the platform themselves. A Hill Times survey of Twitter found that at least 327 of the 337 sitting MPs have an active Twitter account.

With Musk announcing possible new ideas and directions for the platform daily on his Twitter, Oksana Kishchuk, director of strategy and Insights at Abacus Data, said MPs and governments may want to take a “wait and see” approach when it comes to how they may need to adapt their use of Twitter.

“If anyone’s been on Elon’s Twitter feed, you’ll know that it’s not predictable. It’s a bit of a roller coaster,” she said. “And I think his management style so far from Twitter has been just that.”

Oksana Kishchuk, director of strategy and Insights at Abacus Data said Musk’s Twitter feed has been ‘a roller coaster.’ Photo courtesy of Oksana Kishchuk

Kishchuk said that with changes happening fast, governments and MPs would be smart to “see how the market reacts to some of these—and maybe rein in [their use] a little bit, maybe not—but I think a ‘wait and see’ approach is probably the best one to take so far.” This is the approach taken by the Government of Canada’s ad agency, which paused its advertising on Twitter.

On Nov. 2, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) took a similar approach when asked about Twitter, saying, “I think there’s a lot of people reflecting on the best way to continue to connect with citizens.”

Since Musk’s takeover, an emerging platform called Mastodon has made news as some users moved to it in an exodus from Twitter.

Kishchuk noted this is a phenomenon that regularly occurs with social media platforms, such as with the growth of TikTok and decline of Facebook in recent years, and said different generations will often gravitate towards different platforms.

“People kind of move around on social media platforms a lot,” she said. “They trend more or less over time as well. So perhaps [this is] a bit of a natural evolution as well on the platform’s interest.”

She said for Mastodon to become a significant platform for communication about public issues, it would need to find a niche that goes beyond being a replacement to Twitter.

“So what’s Mastodon’s pitch? Is it sort of filling a void in the market? Is it just going to be another Twitter with different protections?” she said. “It has to make sure that it’s kind of fulfilling a void in the social media space for consumers, not just replacing Twitter. So I think that if it can sort of find that niche or find that sort of pitch to folks, I think then it could take off.”

Wendy Chun, a professor who leads the Digital Democracies Institute at Simon Fraser University, also noted that new platforms are constantly emerging.

“There was Truth Social. Before that there was Parlor,” she said. “I find it baffling that there aren’t more alternatives already. That there aren’t people trying to create more different and open, more truly public points of communication.”

Regulation needed, researchers say

Solomun said recent events make it clear that more action from government is needed.

“The last few weeks have really elucidated the failure of governments to step into the space and to add transparency measures, accountability measures, to come up with robust mechanisms to prevent the wide ranging, on-a-whim changes that any one self-serving billionaire may choose to take,” she said.

Sonja Solomun, deputy director of McGill University’s Center for Media, Technology and Democracy, said the fallout from Musk’s takeover has shown ‘the failure of governments’ to regulate social media platforms. Photo courtesy of Sonja Solomun’s LinkedIn

However, she had some praise for the direction that the Canadian government has indicated it is moving in, with its announcements early this year regarding online harms, saying the government’s focus on a “duty to act responsibly” is a sound one.

“Canada, I think, is taking the right approach by expressly moving away from the German model that focuses too heavily on content removal, and has instead chosen to focus on the design choices that are made by platforms all under the framework of a duty to act responsibly,” she said, noting this duty is built into “other consumer facing products in this country that we’re subjected to,” making it “not an entirely novel idea.”

Solomun noted there is evidence that Canadians support more regulation, coming from citizens’ assemblies held by the Canadian Commission on Democratic Reform.

“We’ve learned from the citizens’ assemblies that Canadians feel really strongly about the lack of accountability on social media platforms,” ​​she said. “They’ve been calling on policy-makers to do more to hold these companies accountable.”

The Hill Times sent an inquiry to the office of Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez (Honoré-Mercier, Que.), asking what additional regulatory measures the government might consider based on the recent developments at Twitter.

In an email reply, Laura Scaffidi, a spokesperson for Rodriguez, did not provide specific information on how the government may react to the recent changes, but said the federal government would “work collaboratively and constructively with platforms on this important issue.”

Chun said one area the government should engage more is around privacy.

Wendy Chun of Simon Fraser University said privacy is a key part of regulation. Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University

“I think the privacy angle is absolutely key,” said Chun. “Should the social media company be tracking all users and all the interactions the way they are now in order to create the algorithms that offer certain content and that push and nudge users in certain ways?”

However, she said, there are real challenges to implementing this kind of regulation.

“A lot of companies are claiming to do certain things to be in line with regulation,” she said. “And the issue is that these can’t be verified.”

She noted that some jurisdictions such as the European Union have called for “a repository” of data from social media companies “so that researchers could have access to this material” and verify if they are following regulations.

“Again, there are privacy issues that are raised by this,” said Chun. “But I do think that having this verifiability is absolutely key.”

The Hill Times

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