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What could Elon Musk have in store for Twitter and charity communicators?

24 May 2022

Elon Musk has a track record of getting ahead of himself and shooting from the hip. He clearly relishes the feeling of keeping the whole world in suspense and having media pore over his every pronouncement.

His approach to communications is unconventional. His tweets range from whimsy and meme-infused, Trumpian media-bashing, to carelessness which in 2018 got him sued by one of the world’s most powerful regulators, resulting in a $40m penalty.

All of this means that his public comments should generally be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, here are some things for charity communicators to consider as we await the next stage in his potential takeover of Twitter.

A rise in hate speech?

As a volunteer with Charities Against Hate (CAH), I’d hope that whoever runs Twitter has a good read of the product recommendations for social media companies, which CAH released last year.

Not that I’m holding my breath, given Musk’s apparent inclination towards a laissez-faire approach to content moderation. An insightful recent SocialMediaToday article suggested he “has a way to go in fully understanding the potential harms and dangers of allowing certain types of speech to be amplified via social networks”.

Many have voiced fears that Twitter under Musk could be a place where hate speech and dangerous content can flourish further. It may be that many charities’ audiences feel even less inclined to use the platform, or start using it less actively. This may particularly affect those with particular identities or protected characteristics – it is after all a horrible irony that free speech policies can lead many to feel less freedom to speak, for fear of abuse. Charities must consider where else they could instead talk to such audiences.

Of course, even if Musk were to announce a major crackdown on online hate, it is hard to imagine that it would ever disappear completely from the web.

Regardless of who owns it, hate speech currently thrives across social platforms. CAH’s Guide to Best Practice in Ethical Digital Marketing & Comms Practices recommends that charities consider visibly engaging with abusive content, rather than hiding, removing or ignoring it. Doing so will strengthen your online community and trust in your brand, CAH argues – although the Guide does recognise that there are important exceptions to this rule.

The end of Twitter’s heyday?

Some Twitter users announced or made their departure from the platform following the news of Musk’s attempted purchase.

It’s possible that Musk’s takeover will spell the beginning of a period of decline for Twitter’s reach and relevance, although I think that’s unlikely. Twitter remains the place where many influential people spend a lot of time, and if your charity wants to influence them or the conversations in which they’re involved, you probably want to be there.

That said, no company is too big to fail. And no communications platform or media outlet can ever guarantee perpetual prominence. But even if Twitter’s decline is nigh, it is likely to be gradual rather than sudden – so don’t rip up your content plan just yet.

But debates around social media practice and ethics in general, and Twitter’s future in particular, are unlikely to die down. It’s increasingly possible that you’ll face internal or external questions about the appropriateness of your charity having a presence on Twitter or other platforms. There could for example be suggestions that you ought to boycott them, pressure to behave in a certain way, or calls to explain your communications and social media policies. Think about what your response to such questioning would be – doing so might also help you reassess whether your current strategy and tactics are the right ones.

It’s also worth remembering that CAH’s Guide to Best Practice makes the point that no charity can afford to be over-reliant on any one platform for advertising, communications or fundraising. If you have a strong presence on any one platform but few other ways of reaching your audiences, that poses a risk to your organisation.

More change (so no change there)

Remember when tweets were only 140 characters long? Remember when you could barely move on Twitter for Vines? Remember when Twitter polls only had two options? Remember when your Twitter timeline was chronological?

Despite its simplicity as a platform, Twitter has been forever evolving, and its users have been adapting with it.

Like him or loathe him, Musk is an innovator and someone who expects change to happen quickly. So, it’s likely that he’d continue to add new features, rules and products, potentially with little or no warning. One suggestion he has already tweeted is a “slight cost for commercial/government users” – whether that might include those in the third sector is not clear.

Indeed at this stage, nothing is completely clear about what Musk’s potential Twitter takeover would mean in practice. But it should certainly be a time for charity communicators to reflect on fundamental social media issues, not least that of online hate.

Banner Image: Edgar Moran on Unsplash

Sam Burne James

freelance PR and communications professional, freelance

Sam Burne James is a freelance PR and communications professional, and a volunteer with Charities Against Hate. He hasn’t posted on Instagram in three and a half years. Find him on Twitter @samburnejames.