The trouble with Twitter: from Elon Musk banning comedian Kathy Griffin to ‘rehiring fired staff’

Twitter has been in the firing line for quite some time. And although we may be nostalgic for it right now, it’s never been perfect

There is a common misconception that Twitter is one of the biggest social media platforms. Alongside Facebook, Instagram and the newer entry on to the scene TikTok, it’s often considered one of the ‘big four’. In reality, social media is a lot harder to define. Instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Messenger are also included in social media lists. The main measure for a social media platform’s size is the number of users, which sees Twitter not even in the top 10 hot platforms and is somewhat surprisingly behind websites such as Snapchat.

That perhaps explains how Twitter has ended up in the position of being purchased by the world’s richest person. All businesses want to get bigger and get more customers. The microblogging site was revolutionary when it came on the scene in 2006. Whether you loved it or hated it, there was no social media site that had a character limit and its instantaneous nature made it particularly popular for news and reaction.

But since then, with respect to Twitter, not much has changed. They have introduced some features. Twitter Moments is a great, succinct way of summarising news stories. But from an everyday user’s point of view, they are only to be consumed, not made. Twitter Spaces is another feature that is different from other social media platforms, though its popularity is dubious. They also had a crack at Stories, like every other social media platform, but that was quickly scrapped. Ultimately, just like in the mid-2000s, you send out a tweet and that’s about it - only with an extra 140 characters and photos or videos nowadays.

Unfortunately there’s not been many signs of meaningful change since a switch of ownership, apart from a scheme that would allow anyone to pay for verification. Instead, it has been a very busy couple of weeks of rumours. This weekend alone we have seen reports that Twitter employees who were told that they were being made redundant on Friday being asked if they could quietly return to their roles following a realisation that they were actually quite important. Those let go included virtually all of Twitter’s employees in the UK. Some employees were notified of their redundancy by being locked out of their laptop, with practically no official notice.

Elon Musk’s Twitter account displayed on a screen are seen (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Late on Sunday night (6 November), Twitter chief Elon Musk tweeted that “Twitter needs to become by far the most accurate source of information about the world. That’s our mission.” Which is presumably why it will soon be possible for anyone to become verified for $8 a month.

But perhaps the highlight (if it can be called that) of the weekend was a tweet issued by Musk at 10:53 PM UK time later that evening. It read: “Going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying “parody” will be permanently suspended.”

This came after US comedian Kathy Griffin was banned from the platform for impersonating the Tesla boss. The tweet that led to Griffin’s ban centred around the US midterm elections. She adopted Musk’s name and profile picture, with one tweet saying: “After much spirited discussion with the females in my life. I’ve decided that voting blue for their choice is only right (They’re also sexy females, btw.) #VoteBlueToProtectWomen”.

Musk responded by banning the comedian and saying she could have her account back for a fee of $8. So it appears to be a case of: ‘no, not that type of free speech’. What followed, predictably for Twitter, is a number of accounts adopting Musk’s profile pictures and username to put out tweets impersonating him.

For a man who started his first day by walking into Twitter HQ with a sink, it appears that the joke is only funny if he’s in on it. Whereas previously we would not hear of changes to Twitter unless via a press release, or notifications to our device as we log in, changes are now mooted based on feedback to Musk’s personal Twitter account. If someone does something ‘wrong’, they’ll be publicly told off and made to pay to get their account back. A bit like a rogue prefect.

The intentions of improving free speech, particularly accuracy, are fine. Social media in recent years has struggled with the problem of misinformation and it is vitally important in difficult times for everybody that there are platforms which users can go to to stay up to date. Twitter also could benefit from new ideas, features and rules. But verifying everyone isn’t going to help. Neither is removing the curation teams at Twitter who provide context to trends and decide what Twitter Moments you see on your ‘For You’ page. Ultimately, it probably achieves the opposite.