Scientists leave X as platform changes character

At least half of respondents of the survey reported that they have reduced the amount of time they spend on the platform in the last six months

Updated - August 27, 2023 02:06 pm IST

Published - August 27, 2023 02:04 pm IST

An illustrative photograph showing the new Twitter logo rebranded as X (L) and the previous bird logo reflected in smartphone screens, July 27, 2023.

An illustrative photograph showing the new Twitter logo rebranded as X (L) and the previous bird logo reflected in smartphone screens, July 27, 2023. | Photo Credit: AFP

A survey conducted recently by the journal Nature found that researchers are leaving the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter), a place they used frequently to promote their work, interact with the larger scientific community, and share their insights.

In 2016, Emilia Jarochowska, a PhD candidate, reportedly joined X with to boost her career in palaeontology. It was a platform where she could connect with colleagues, look for job opportunities and share her work. But after Elon Musk took over the platform in late 2022, sweeping changes to the platform’s management marred opportunities.

The findings, published by Nature in an article, stated that there are several reasons for the exodus, starting with the direction in which the platform seems to be headed since the takeover. Together with rolling back rules on content moderation, doing away with the blue-tick verification system, shifting to a subscription model where paying members get extra privileges, limiting the number of tweets users can see, and changing the names and logo has caused discomfort and uncertainty, leading to scholars to avoid using the platform.

Also Read | Elon Musk wants to remove the block feature on X

The survey contacted 170,000 scientists who are or have been using the platform, of which nearly 9,200 responded. At least half of them reported that they have reduced the amount of time they spend on X in the last six months. At least 7% of respondents have stopped using it completely while some 46% have joined other social media platforms.

The platform also seems to have also accrued an increasing number of fake accounts, trolls, and hate speech since the change of ownership, the survey noted. The transition from a platform facilitating scientific discourse to one fostering controversy and misinformation has prompted a wave of migration to alternative social media platforms such as Mastodon, Bluesky, Threads, and TikTok. 

Despite Mr. Musk’s claims to the contrary, a study revealed an increase in hate speech since his takeover

Also Read | Musk plans to change how news is shared on X

Ziga Malek, an environmental scientist at the Free University of Amsterdam, told Nature he started noticing the presence of far-right accounts espousing science denialism and racism that he had to keep blocking. “X has always been not so nice let’s say, but it is a mess right now,” he said.

Mastodon, established in 2016, has become a popular alternative to X after the takeover for its decentralised and open-access regulations. But the fragmented landscape resulting from a migration has posed challenges to science communication. Previously, X served as a ‘hub’ for scholars to access information through specific hashtags. But with a diaspora across multiple platforms, it has become challenging to say where researchers are congregating, hindering access to their insights.

The impact of these changes extends beyond personal connections. The sense of community fostered on X, particularly for marginalised groups like scientists of colour and female researchers, has been a driving force in addressing issues such as harassment, unequal pay, and inequity. It provided a platform for scientists to collaborate, discuss research fraud, and spotlight topics like scientific colonialism and diversity, the Nature article said.

Also Read | The problem with X? Meta, Microsoft, hundreds more own trademarks to new Twitter name

One change, introduced in February, was the closure of the platform’s application programming interface (API), which allowed scientists to observe how users interacted with one another on the platform. This would feed studies of how people were discussing climate change, how people with autism were making their voices heard, and the platform’s response to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, etc. Research on such topics has suffered a blow ever since access to API was revoked for the general public. 

According to the survey, LinkedIn was the second most popular place to open new accounts followed by Instagram and finally Threads, both of which are owned by Meta.

Even as some scientists feel that with the changing paradigm of X, the sense of community is slipping away, others are sure researchers will come up with unique ways to overcome the challenge. Ms. Jarochowska suggested webinars and other methods of networking might be more fruitful to promote scientific work. “If you appear with your scientific content between videos of cats,” she told Nature, “it’s not a particularly good medium for promotion yourself professionally, anyway.”

Mark Carrigan, a digital sociologist at the Manchester Institute for Education, U.K., said that the void left behind by X can be used to diversify science and democratise academia.

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