The Future Of

Twitter | Prof Tama Leaver

Episode Summary

Will Twitter ever be the same since Elon Musk’s takeover? And what impact will his changes have on users, free speech and (dis)information?

Episode Notes

Will Twitter ever be the same since Elon Musk’s takeover? And what impact will his changes have on users, free speech and (dis)information?     

Twitter is one of the most influential speech platforms in the world – as of 2022, it had approximately 450million monthly active users. But its takeover by Elon Musk has sparked concerns about social media regulation and Twitter’s ability to remain a ‘proxy for public opinion’. 

To explore this topic, Sarah is joined by Tama Leaver, Professor of Internet Studies at Curtin University. 

Learn more

Connect with our guests

Tama Leaver, Professor of Internet Studies at Curtin University.

Tama Leaver’s research interests include children’s data, privacy and rights in an online world, visual social media, the activity and regulation of big social media companies, and the social, casual and mobile gaming landscape.

He is the President of the Association of Internet Researchers, a regular media commentator and a Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child.

Join Curtin University

This podcast is brought to you by Curtin University. Curtin is a global university known for its commitment to making positive change happen through high-impact research, strong industry partnerships and practical teaching.

Got any questions, or suggestions for future topics?


Social media


Read the transcript


Host: Sarah Taillier

Content creator: Zoe Taylor
Producer & Recordist: Emilia Jolakoska

First Nations Acknowledgement

Curtin University acknowledges the traditional owners of the land on which Curtin Perth is located, the Whadjuk people of the Nyungar Nation, and on Curtin Kalgoorlie, the Wongutha people of the North-Eastern Goldfields; and the First Nations peoples on all Curtin locations.


OKAY by 13ounce Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported — CC BY-SA 3.0 Music promoted by Audio Library.

Curtin University supports academic freedom of speech. The views expressed in The Future Of podcast may not reflect those of Curtin University.

Episode Transcription

Sarah Taillier:                00:00                This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better.


Sarah Taillier:             00:09                I'm Sarah Taillier. Twitter is considered to be one of the most influential speech platforms in the world. As of 2022, it had approximately 450 million monthly active users, but its recent takeover by Elon Musk has thrown the Twitter community into chaos and reignited questions about social media regulation and the impact of social media on freedom of speech, censorship, and disinformation. To explore this topic, I chat with Tama Leaver, professor of Internet Studies at Curtin University. If you'd like to find out more about this research, you can visit the links provided in the show notes.

Sarah Taillier:             00:48                Firstly, before we jump into the Twitter sphere, Tama, why does Twitter matter? Why does it matter what happens on Twitter and how the platform is regulated?

Tama Leaver:              00:58                So Twitter matters in all sorts of different ways, but probably the most important one is at some point it became a proxy for understanding what the public thinks. So I think Twitter is probably more connected to mainstream media and journalists than any other single platform, and it's also often the way that the media find the people that they're going to talk to. So that as well as the fact that it's easily measured, so it's pretty easy to say if 1,000 people have tweeted about something, you can get that number more so than any other single platform.

Tama Leaver:               01:30                So if we imagine Twitter has been treated as a proxy for the public sphere, then somebody buying the public sphere and going, "I'm going to change who's allowed to walk in Twitter at what time and whether you'll see other people," Is actually a really big radical change that, while viable from the fact that it's a commercial platform isn't how most people imagined that platform. And it's a really big change. So Musk isn't just, "I'm going to buy it and look after it." He's like, "I'm going to buy it and really mess with the architecture of it." And I think that's why it matters today.

Sarah Taillier:                02:01                So let's talk about Elon Musk, now the CEO of Twitter after taking over the platform back in October last year. What was your reaction to that news? It had been on the cards for a little while.

Tama Leaver:                02:12                So it had been on the cards for a while and I think that the worst thing about it was that Musk tried to back out of the deal. So he spent a whole lot of time rubbishing the platform that he now owns, which I think is a really bad way to start. And it's a bit like American primaries where all the Democrats call each other horrible names and then, "Oh, but now I'm going to back you." So it was a bit like that. But for Musk, he also has made a career out of having perhaps more bravado than actually he pretends. So people still like to think of him a bit like Tony Stark, he's a bit Ironman. But actually when you peel the layers away, he doesn't really understand how stuff works. He just makes the right noises. And for Twitter, it became really apparent that he didn't really understand the architecture of what was holding it up or the social agreement that people were really entering into when they used the platform.

 Tama Leaver:               03:01                So that was sort of the lead in to him buying it. And then suddenly he's the owner of Twitter and saying things like, "Oh, we're going to completely change. Everybody's going to have to pay to be verified or we won't show you to each other." And there was a mass exodus, so a lot of people ran for the hills. People that were sort of teetering on the brink of, will I or won't I stay, all set up backup accounts. And on the platforms we did see that the community run platform Mastodon had a huge spike. It went from being relatively unknown to being extremely mainstream quite quickly because people were migrating effectively and a whole lot of people have been very tentative about wanting to leave their data there. So a lot of people downloaded their Twitter data then erased the bulk of it, even if they stayed on the platform to see what it looked like to be inside a burning house.

  Tama Leaver:               03:50                But all of that is still ongoing. So I mean I think to some people surprised, even though Musk has sacked more than half the employees and unplugged about half the boxes that ran the system, it hasn't completely fallen over. It's a lot less reliable and it does quirky things sometimes, but the platform is still there and they're still experimenting with how to extract more money from users. But people are really apprehensive about what Twitter will look like today and tomorrow. And people are quite aware that they might wake up tomorrow and Twitter will have either fallen down or look so radically different that it's just not a space that they can usefully be part of.

Sarah Taillier:                04:24                You've touched on some really significant changes that have already been made by Musk, but have you noticed any of those changes feeding through yet in the way that people are using Twitter and the way that it's been used?

Tama Leaver:                04:34                For sure. So I think the biggest difference for me is a whole lot of the people I expect to talk to aren't there anymore. So I think especially in sort of the academic space where people felt an ethical or moral obligation to lead the exodus, a lot of my sort of people that I would talk to most days are just gone. So that for me is that the first and biggest experience of Twitter. It's also true that Musk has pushed more heavily an algorithmically driven feed, so you don't see what you expect to see. And for my money, that algorithmic feed is terrible. It's not giving you what you should want to see first. So even if they've taken the logic of TikTok, which is, "We'll go algorithmic and we'll give you what you want and you'll stay." The last two bits haven't happened. They've gone algorithmic, but the argument for staying has not been made. So as an experience, it's actually been pretty poor. And for me, as someone who's been on Twitter for 15 years, considering not wanting to stay on the platform is a pretty big deal.

Sarah Taillier:                05:32                So have you been mulling that over?

Tama Leaver:                05:36                So I have done all of the things of making backup accounts and starting to spend more time on Mastodon and other spaces, and I haven't quite given up because I still interface with the people that I know less well and that's valuable to me, but I'm very prepared to leave altogether one day if it comes to it. And I do think almost everyone's got a backup plan. If they know this is happening. To be fair, there's probably half the people on Twitter that are oblivious to this at all. But for those that, they're aware.

Sarah Taillier:                06:03                Do you think that will make a difference? As in this mass exodus, like you've been saying, you've noticed that people aren't there anymore. It was a big news story when I think Elton John then Jim Carrey dropped off as well. Do you think that really impacts Twitter's brand?

Tama Leaver:                06:18                Twitter's brand is people being there. Twitter's brand is, if I look for a celebrity, I can find them. Twitter's brand is, it's the least barriers to engagement of any of the social media platforms. If that stops being true, if I search for Elton John and he's not there or he's worse, he's left an account that says, "I'm not going to be here anymore. I'll be on Instagram or Facebook or Mastodon," then I'm going to go, "Oh maybe I should spend more time looking at those." I mean, the weirdest thing for me is I've probably spent more time looking back at my old Facebook feed because that's where a lot of the people that I can't find on Twitter have gone back to. Not that that platform's necessarily more ethical, it's simply what people have done.

Sarah Taillier:                06:54                Musk calls himself a free speech absolutist and said one of the reasons he took over Twitter was to help humanity and to read the platform of content regulation. His stance has raised a lot of questions about the role social media plays in free speech, but also disinformation. What are your thoughts about this space?

Tama Leaver:                07:13                Yeah. Musk is kind of like a child when he says that. I mean, social media can't operate without any rules at all, and we know that the reason that mature platforms like Twitter or Facebook have a whole lot of complicated regulation rules is because that's the only way the community could stay there. It's the only way many people could feel safe enough to say things on that platform and not get lynched tomorrow. Now to be fair, we never got to the ideal platform. We probably needed more regulation rather than less, but what we have seen with Musk pulling a whole lot of that regulation away is a whole lot of people have not felt safe enough to be on there. So a lot of marginalised groups have just left altogether or are only participating in the most minimal sense. So I think Musk has made a lot of people feel unwelcome, and if that's the outcome of free speech as an absolutist ideal, then it's not necessarily an ideal that's good for most people.

Sarah Taillier:                08:09                What do you think democratic social media looks like?

Tama Leaver:                08:14                So it's a tricky balance. I mean, the difficulty with democracy is it needs boundaries that allow everyone to feel able to express themselves. If freedom of speech means the person that screams the loudest wins, then it's not actually much use to anyone. So it is about having some balances in there, and I do think that Twitter was trying to move in the right direction. It was trying to balance letting most people talk most of the time, but not about certain really controversial or unethical subjects and that there were lines you could cross. The fact that Trump did eventually get banned from Twitter, admittedly at the very last moment of his presidency almost symbolically, but it did say there are lines that you have crossed. And the fact that one of the things Musk did was reinstate Trump's account and then Trump couldn't be bothered to use that account was not the finest moment for Elon Musk's flag waving for free speech.

Sarah Taillier:                09:07                What would be the advice if they came to you as a consultant to say, "What do we do to get this back online to make this a safe and appealing place for the people that have left?" What would the advice that you'd be handing over?

Tama Leaver:                09:20                Honestly, they would need to roll back most of the protections that they'd previously put in place. That there do need to be certain types of speech acts that are simply not acceptable, that certain lines shouldn't be crossable, that being a misogynist racist prick to a whole lot of people should actually have a consequence if you're on Twitter, and there should be a way to communicate that that's not acceptable if you're on the receiving end. All of those things were in place. Some of them admittedly worked a lot better than others, but the whole point was experimenting to try and get those mechanisms in place so people felt safe there. I think if your community doesn't trust that the platform has your best interest and the community doesn't trust that it's moving in that direction at least, then they're less likely to invest time in being there. And I think that's where we are today, that people are there almost to... As I said, it's like watching a burning building from the inside knowing that I can just back out at any minute and being very prepared for that minute to come.

Sarah Taillier:                10:16                Musk has long argued that Twitter enforced rules against the right but not against the left. There's been studies that have since come out that have really refuted that. That algorithms, I think one of the studies back in 2021 was that algorithms actually amplify right wing politicians over left. How much power and pull does Twitter have in the political arena?

Tama Leaver:                10:41                I think both the left and the right have spent a lot of time decrying social media as being biased against them, so saying it favours. And I think for the most part that's been completely untrue. I think while there are moments where there's been manual intervention in platforms that hasn't been disclosed, for the vast majority of things, platforms have struggled to be as balanced as they can be in what is a ridiculously polarised political environment. Twitter has not been the only thing that has led to a deeply polarised world, but it's in the middle of it. And I think a polarised world means one side's never going to be happy. That's the nature of politics at the moment, and I think Twitter is awkwardly the meat in that sandwich to some extent.

Sarah Taillier:                11:28                The declaration for the future of the internet was launched in April last year. It's a commitment, as you well know, by the U.S. and more than 60 other countries, including Australia, to make the internet a more democratic place. Can you tell me a little bit about this declaration and the impact it could have on social media?

Tama Leaver:                11:47                So the declaration is a wonderful idea. It is sort of going back to first principles of the internet and the web saying that this is supposed to be an infrastructure that anyone can use, that it's supposed to be fundamental to democracy thriving, that it's supposed to be a space where someone can come up with an idea and actually have the competitive capacity to make that idea realised; not be dwarfed by giants that will just eat you up and buy your company out and you'll never have an alternative. It is also quite aspirational but not really enforceable. There's no mechanisms in this to say, "Oh, you didn't follow the declaration, therefore you're in trouble." It is aspirational, and to be perfectly honest, since that was signed by most countries in April, we've moved probably completely in the opposite direction.

 Tama Leaver:                12:33                I think the internet has got worse. I think Elon Musk has shown you can race to the bottom pretty quickly and most of the other platforms have gone, "Ah, we could do slightly less well and nobody would notice." I mean, we've had more layoffs in the tech space in the big platforms in the last three months than we ever have since the dot-com burst. That was 20 something years ago. So it's not a really good time for tech employment, but it also means that the things that are most likely get whittled away are those teams looking after community and safety. They're not often seen as core to the mission of a lot of tech companies, and that's really worrying. If Musk racing to the bottom means everything else can get a little bit worse too, then that's basically bad for everyone.

Sarah Taillier:                13:19                What do you think needs to happen in this space?

Tama Leaver:                13:22                I think one of the things that is happening very slowly is that the national governments of the world and larger entities like the EU are waking up and going, "Actually this has been a terrible free for all for too long. We do actually need some baseline regulation to stop the worst bits of this happening." Now that's a very slow process and governments are like stumbling beasts that take a long time to create change. But The News Media Bargaining Code in Australia is one example of trying to do that, trying to speak back to big platforms and have small amounts of change that are good for national populations.

Tama Leaver:               13:58                The GDPR, which is a privacy protection thing from the EU is another example of that where the EU as a whole has gone. It's not acceptable to just hoover up everyone's data and never tell you what you're doing with it, that there does actually need to be some accountability for where your data goes and how long you hold onto it for what reasons. So those are really positive developments and they suggest that it won't be the companies doing things for themselves. It'll be the outside pressures forcing them to make slightly less billion dollars by putting slightly more into the infrastructure to look after the people that use these platforms.

Sarah Taillier:                14:34                We're just going to pause for a quick break.

Message From Curtin Postgrad:             14:39                Do you want to switch your career or take it to the next level? A postgraduate course at Curtin University can help to change your life. With flexible study options, strong industry connections, world-leading research, and a welcoming and inclusive culture, a Curtin education can help boost your knowledge and skills. Our high standard of teaching and learning has seen us achieve a five star plus rating in the prestigious QS Star rankings, which is the highest possible rating for any university. Get started on your post-grad journey today by visiting

Sarah Taillier:                15:15                And we are back. There's been some hype, Tama, around decentralising social media. You've mentioned a couple of times Mastodon. What is it and how does it work and why do you think people are being drawn towards it?

Tama Leaver:                15:29                So Mastodon is an open source alternative social media platform that is what we call federated. So isn't just one version of Mastodon. There's lots and lots and lots of versions that are run by individuals usually on a really small scale. So Mastodon as a whole is probably 30,000 different servers with 30,000 individuals looking after those servers. And it does mean that you can set pretty decent rules and behavioural norms on those platforms because they're set for smaller groups. Then they all get clumped together in what's called the federated or ‘fediverse’, and that's what Mastodon as a whole is. Now as an alternative, where it's not owned and can't be bought by a billionaire, that's actually really appealing as an antidote to the social media norms of today of Meta, Twitter, Apple, Google, Amazon.

Sarah Taillier:                16:21                How is it able to function?

Tama Leaver:                16:22                At the moment, it's largely funded by the people using it, so it doesn't cost a huge amount to run a Mastodon server unless it gets to a certain size. But for the most part, people looking for an alternative understand that if it's not going to be running ads and it's not, then you're going to have to put in a little bit to look after it. Now it might not be that much, it might be putting in a couple of dollars every couple of months just to help it keep afloat, but that's a viable alternative for the time being. Now, to be fair, Mastodon is still a tiny fraction of the user base of even Twitter today. But it is growing, and I think the fact that people are seriously looking for alternatives tells us that what's being accepted as an inescapable norm today won't be inescapable forever.

Sarah Taillier:                17:06                Do you think that kind of model for social media could be the way that we're heading?

Tama Leaver:                17:11                I think it's definitely a viable alternative and I think every time the big platforms do something terrible, every time there's a huge controversy about what they have failed to do or failed to police or the fact that they knew they were making teens with anorexia probably much worse, anything like that, it's a push to look for an alternative. And I do think that Mastodon at the moment is probably the best viable alternative. We know people want social media, we know people value that social connectedness, but we know that they're more worried about their own data and they're more worried about the platforms not looking after their best interests. So this is an alternative for today.

Sarah Taillier:                17:47                Let's zoom out for a moment, Tama. We are living in a time where things like digital authoritarianism, censorship, disinformation, and deepfakes are on the rise. How can we trust what we read and what we see online? How do we navigate that?

Tama Leaver:                18:03                That's a brilliant question and it's almost impossible to answer today, but what I can say is that trust has to begin from the place that you're standing. And if Twitter used to be a place where people trusted that the platform itself at least had their best interest, that if there was a deepfake coming, that Twitter would try and at least signal to them that this was coming. The fact that Twitter, for example, put fact checking in for certain things so it could flag. This is disinformation. We're not going to delete it, but we're going to flag with a big red box that we think this might not be true, for example. Those were really helpful moves in trying to ensure that trust was there could be part of the platform.

Tama Leaver:               18:39                I would suggest that trust is rarer and rarer on social media today, and I think that we're going to enter a phase where trust signalling is going to become increasingly valuable. It's not something that the platforms are doing brilliantly yet, but it is certainly something that I think Meta has sort of taken a step back with Facebook and Instagram and gone, "You know what? Even low level signalling that this has got some sort of credibility or fact checking is actually going to be really valuable for communities."

Tama Leaver:                 19:04                So I do think that the value of authenticating truth in a way that people believe, or at least authenticating value, maybe truth is the wrong word, but I do think people are really worried that they can't trust most of what they see. I think with generative AI like ChatGPT or the various image and video generation tools, people are also kind of worried that they won't be able to trust the image or the video anymore either. So I think in that environment, trust is actually incredibly important and something that we're going to have to work really hard for people to be able to trust the platforms, the places, or the things that they see online.

Sarah Taillier:                19:39                Do you think it's possible for Twitter to rebuild trust at this point?

Tama Leaver:                19:45                Twitter's big enough that if it about-faced today and try to improve, people would, I think. Most users are still there, even though there's been an exodus. Most of their user base is still there, still has an account even if they're not necessarily using it as much. So I think Twitter is revivable. It's able to be reoriented towards looking after its community again, but it would need to be soon. I think that the damage that a rogue billionaire CEO can do to a platform and the trust the community has to place in that platform is going to be really significant.

Tama Leaver:             20:17                And I do think at the same time we see other alternatives trying to spin up that aren't necessarily going to be that much better, but they're going to be something different. And I think people are trying different things. I think BeReal, for example, had its moment in the sun just because it didn't do very much, so it was kind of hard to be inauthentic when you get two minutes of data, snap a photo. People are clearly then striving for something that feels real, feels like connection. Twitter used to be that space. Something else probably will be soon.

Sarah Taillier:                20:46                How do you think, whether it's Twitter or social media in general, how would you like to see social media evolve? I think you may have touched on some of the areas already.

Tama Leaver:                20:56                Yeah. Look, I think social media is here to stay. I think sharing online with family, friends, and others is part and parcel of who we are now as a society. But I actually think that having better regulation and more reliability of both platforms and the relationship between platforms and governments is actually going to be really important. We've had sort of a startup culture where they've made the rules, experimented, broken a whole lot of things, but now Facebook is a late teenager. It's old enough to make some sensible mature choices and so are some of the other platforms around it.

Sarah Taillier:                21:33                What role do you think the government and state can play in that space or should be playing that space?

Tama Leaver:                21:38                I think that the first thing that governments need to do is get to the point where they actually can speak credibly back to these platforms. We have a terrible, terrible, terrible system where the ministers who are responsible for speaking to platforms often don't understand what they do. And when we have inquiries in Australia, we just see a parade of people saying knee-jerk things, which means they don't really understand how it works. We're better than perhaps America. When Congress goes after CEOs and they bring them up and then they ask the most embarrassing questions in history about, "How do you make money?" And Mark Zuckerberg giggles and says, "I run ads." That's not how this should work. We should have an informed government that understands how these things work, platforms that want to come to the party because they know they're actually talking to informed leaders, and then make some rules that are better for everyone. That's what I would like to see.

Sarah Taillier:                22:25                Seems like trust on many accounts needs to be grown. Just finally, Tama, back to Twitter. Do you think anyone will be game enough to actually replace Elon Musk as Twitter's CEO?

Tama Leaver:                22:38                I suspect that Elon Musk is going to lose billions and billions and billions of dollars, and at some point he'll get bored. He's a kid that's sort of kicking sand in other people's faces in a sandbox. He'll eventually want to move into a different sandbox and realise that he'll either install a CEO who runs it well, that doesn't really do what Musk wants, or Musk will simply sell it at a massive loss one day. That day is when Twitter will find its identity again.

Sarah Taillier:                23:01                Thank you, Tama. Thank you so much for coming in today and unpacking your knowledge in this space.

Tama Leaver:                23:06                It's been my pleasure.

Sarah Taillier:                23:07                You've been listening to The Future Of, a podcast powered by Curtin University. As always, if you've enjoyed this episode, please share it and don't forget to subscribe to The Future Of on your favourite podcast app. Bye for now.