The CBC says Twitter chief executive Elon Musk is treating journalistic independence “as a game,” while newsrooms around the world reconsider their use of the social-media platform amid its volatile moves and declining audience.
Mr. Musk has repeatedly vowed to increase what he calls the “fun levels” of Twitter, a platform that is rapidly losing active users, according to industry estimates, with competitors TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, Facebook and Instagram continuing to hold steadier user activity.
“While some people use CBC’s Twitter feeds as a source of headlines and news alerts, Twitter is among the smallest sources of traffic for news content out of the social-media platforms we use,” CBC spokesperson Leon Mar told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday.
The Canadian public broadcaster paused its use of the social-media platform for the foreseeable future this week. One of its accounts has been labelled “69% Government-funded Media” by Twitter. Industry observers say this new label for the CBC is part of a spate of “trolling attempts” by Mr. Musk, as he reshapes what used to be the world’s foremost communications tool.
“With regard to the latest from Elon Musk, this is not a serious response. Journalistic independence is not a game,” Mr. Mar said, providing a website link to a late Monday night interaction between Mr. Musk and an online blogger.
Shortly before that exchange, Twitter had labelled CBC as “70% Government-funded Media” for a few hours after the online blogger @TitterDaily noted inaccurately that CBC was arguing against the label because “it funds the other 30% on its own.” Later, that same day, Mr. Musk changed it to “69% Government-funded Media” after pseudonymous Twitter user @itsALLrisky, who runs a newsletter about dogecoin, which is cryptocurrency that Mr. Musk has heavily invested in, suggested it as a joke.
Twitter first assigned the @CBC account its label as “Government-funded Media” on April 16. In the United States, similar labels for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service have led the news organizations to stop using the platform, a decision that CBC mirrored.
ABC (Australia), KBS (South Korea) and RNZ (New Zealand) have also been designated as government-funded media like the CBC, Mr. Mar noted. However, unlike most media organizations’ new labels on Twitter, the @CBC account is the only one with a percentage of government funding attached to it.
Parliamentary appropriations in Canada accounted for 66 per cent of CBC and Radio-Canada’s sources of funds in 2022. “But that’s not the real point,” Mr. Mar said. “The real issue is that Twitter’s definition of ‘Government-funded Media’ means open to editorial interference by government.”
CBC’s editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon wrote in a blog post, “the government has no – zero – involvement in our editorial content or journalism.”
“It’s all very arbitrary,” said Philip Mai, co-director of the Social Media Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson), where he studies how online platforms affect society. “These labels are being given and verification checkmarks are being stripped on Twitter on an ad hoc basis.”
“You can’t really reason with a troll like Elon Musk,” said Taylor Owen, founding director and professor at McGill University’s Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy in Montreal. “We have to start thinking very seriously whether news organizations even need to use Twitter any more with all of these antics.”
Twitter first began to attach labels to media outlets and government officials in 2020. It was a policy designed predominantly for countries such as China and Russia, where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressure, and control over production or distribution.
Democratic countries such as Canada and the U.S. were mostly spared from the labelling policy. But under Mr. Musk’s ownership this has shifted.
Mr. Musk finalized his acquisition of Twitter in October, 2022, after abandoning a months-long legal battle to back out of his initial offer. Since then, he has strived to rejuvenate the unprofitable company’s mercurial business by establishing subscription options and promising to eliminate verification checkmarks for accounts that do not pay for them. Simultaneously, however, he has slashed Twitter’s staff, nearly wiping out its entire content moderation team and dissolving its independent Trust and Safety council as a whole.
“We’re looking at someone who is doing everything on a whim,” Prof. Owen said.
“He can do whatever he wants because it’s this billionaire’s new toy, and the company is private now with zero accountability,” Mr. Mai said.
Trolling has long been a large part of Mr. Musk’s internet persona. He often mixes quips about April Fools’ Day, cannabis culture and the number 69 (referring to the oral sex position) with official business matters to elicit a response from his followers. The tycoon brought this aspect of his online identity under his ownership of Twitter, which has seen its revenue plunge over the years, with advertising income further dropping amid Mr. Musk’s tumultuous takeover.
This week, he interacted with a number of memes and conspiracy theories about the CBC and other Canadian media outlets, allowing the platform’s algorithm to push certain inaccurate tweets higher onto its users’ homepages.
“The biggest problem with Twitter’s ad business is that advertisers don’t trust Musk,” said Jasmine Enberg, principal analyst at market research firm Insider Intelligence, which forecasts a 28-per-cent decline in advertising income for the company and has slashed estimates of overall revenue from US$4.74-billion to US$2.98-billion this year. “The takeover saga caused a spike in time spent in 2022 that has now dissipated,” Ms. Enberg said.
Mr. Mar declined to say whether the CBC is still paying to advertise on Twitter. He also did not say how long the broadcaster’s pause on the platform will last.
Twitter responded to The Globe’s repeated requests for comment with a poop emoji. It is an auto-response the company initiated for media inquiries last month, which Mr. Musk tweeted about on March 19, then deleted thereafter.