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Elon Musk’s War Against Science, Evidence and Objective Truth

Scientists are abandoning Elon Musk’s Twitter amid a “mass extinction event” on the social media network, says Philipp Markolin.

Elon Musk. Photo: AC NewsPhoto / Alamy

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It is no secret that X (formerly known as Twitter) is shedding users and revenue since Elon Musk bought the social media network. The exodus is most pronounced among a particular community that used to call the platform its home: Scientists.

“From a purely scientific perspective, it was a great place to discuss scientific papers and ‘meet’ other scientists”, says Professor Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease researcher who used the platform for communicating science to the public. He met many future collaborators there, for example producing cutting-edge science on the Zika virus that ended up published in the journal Nature. “That, truly, was the best of Twitter, because those collaborations wouldn’t have happened otherwise”. A few weeks ago, he deleted his account with over a hundred thousand followers for good. He was not the first, but among the last few holdouts.

“The loss of science on Twitter is a contemporary mass extinction event”, says Professor Edward Holmes, who recently was awarded the prestigious Croonian Medal by the Royal Society. He has also deleted his Twitter account recently. “Twitter used to be THE place where you shared ideas, data, preprints and papers. Now it’s a post-Apocalyptic hell hole.”

When Elon Musk took over the platform in November 2022, he instigated a barrage of erratic and incompetent changes, from firing most staff to going through the embarrassment of re-hiring critical functionalities; changing the “blue check” verification system into a pay-for-play marker of shame, getting rid of Twitter’s trust and safety team, and inviting back white supremacy activists, racist influencers and political propagandists such as the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. With every wave of change, the situation has gotten progressively worse for scientists.

“I think most of my network on Twitter has left – the view is that it has become a total cesspool. Musk obliterated their capacity to moderate, he invited superspreaders back onto the platform, spreads election disinformation himself and frequently boosts false accounts”, says Professor Sander van der Linden, a misinformation researcher from the University of Cambridge. Additionally, Elon Musk has removed API (Application Programming Interface) access for researchers who used to study mis- and disinformation on Twitter, thereby reducing transparency and making their work harder. Van der Linden thinks that “amongst misinformation researchers there is a fairly unanimous consensus that the quality of information and engagement has gone down dramatically”. Now, he observes “It’s largely been taken over by trolls and misinformation spreaders dominating the discourse.”

Responsible for the latter is largely the change in curation, lack of any moderation, subversion of trust markers and amplification of the worst conspiracy theorists, grifters and disinformation spreaders.

“Twitter was never perfect and has always been under threat by trolls and bots”, the now embattled vaccine scientist Dr Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School for Tropical Medicine at Baylor College in Texas, admits. But it had been at least possible to “present serious and evidence-based pandemic science for the public.” With the transition to X, he says, “the propaganda and threats against us became unrelenting”.

X has not only buried relevant, accurate and truthful information under a barrage of junk information, it has invited exploitation by media manipulators and combatants that treat information as a tool for warfare. And scientists have found themselves in the middle.

“Information has become a battlespace, like naval or aerial”, Carl Miller, Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, once explained to me. Information warfare impacts how information is used, shared and amplified. What matters for information combatants is not the truth, reliability, relevance, contextuality or accuracy of information, but its strategic impact on the battlespace; that is, how well it manipulates citizens into adopting desired actions and beliefs.

Information combatants include a wide array of actors and entities, from powerful industries to political campaigns, from troll farms to militaries, from religious movements to activist communities, from profiteering influencers to eccentric billionaires, including the new owner of X himself. They all aim to shape public discourse in their favour.

While all the big social networks struggle with containing information warfare, X under Elon Musk is actively facilitating it. As a recently published Code of Practice on disinformation report by European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) network notes “the inescapable conclusion of this document is that Elon Musk’s Twitter failed every single indicator [out of 156]  and gave every impression of blatant non-compliance”

X’s facilitation of disinformation was one of the main reasons why the European Commission opened formal infringement proceedings against X on 18 December 2023. So at least within the EU, citizens can hope for improvements.

Meanwhile, the free reign of information combatants on X has put a target on scientists. The scientific method tends to interfere with popular sentiments, political myth-making or powerful interests. Science has the inherent authority to create, assert, dispute, and correct information, thus it is the ultimate arbiter of solving informational conflicts, confusions or contradictions necessary to build shared reality based on shared facts.

Yet when any notion of objective truth itself is under attack, speaking up for an evidence-based worldview can quickly become a risk to livelihood and personal safety for scientists, journalists and citizens alike. Surveys recently conducted on biomedical scientists show two out of three scientists reported harassment after advocating for evidence-based science. Doxxing, lawsuits, character assassinations, and credible death threats have been following many scientists ever since becoming the target on X.

As a result, many scientists get effectively bullied off or silenced from public conversation. Some feel forced to disengage because they worry about the safety of their family, others self-censor online to avoid getting targeted. Exact numbers are hard to come by, within six months of Musk taking over, almost half of environmental scientists had left the platform, many quitting social media entirely.

This scientific exodus from public conversation might however be problematic for democratic society, which researchers argue relies on a shared body of knowledge among citizens. One of them, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive psychology researcher at the University of Bristol, sees the rise of anti-science activism and sentiment as a hallmark of democratic backsliding.

He and others look with worry towards this year of global elections.

The most important message, he argues, is that “Public spaces must not be under the control of billionaires – public spaces belong under public control with public accountability.”

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