Should academics quit Twitter?

Elon Musk’s ‘de facto town square’ is a place where misinformation abounds and where academia is often attacked by culture warriors. But is fighting back effective? Or can it make things worse if academics don’t keep calm and stick to the facts? Tom Williams reports 

December 8, 2022
Source: Getty

“Why should hard-working taxpayers in my constituency have to pay for an academic to write about his experiences masturbating to Japanese porn?” UK Conservative MP Neil O’Brien tweeted in the aftermath of the publication of PhD student Karl Andersson’s now notorious journal paper this summer.

“The non-STEM side of higher education is just much too big, producing too much that is not socially useful,” added the representative for Harborough, Oadby and Wigston – towns south of Leicester, in the very heart of politically fabled Middle England.

“Ok so you don’t believe in free speech? Got it fascists do this [sic],” responded Danny Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, who has more than 100,000 Twitter followers. He was one of several prominent academics who rushed to defend academic freedom despite the now-retracted paper’s contents – which, specifically, described masturbating to pornographic cartoon images of children.

A week later, The Times newspaper released the findings of an investigation into trigger warnings at UK universities. Students are being warned about the content of mainstream texts by the likes of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens because the works risk causing offence, the paper reported, while two universities had removed “challenging” books from reading lists, according to freedom of information requests.

The article was shared online by politicians to illustrate why the free speech bill, currently going through Parliament, is needed. But academics were quick to attack the newspaper on Twitter for whipping up “panic” and “trawling for non-existent culture-war fodder”. “Removal from one (1) reading list DOES NOT EQUAL BLACKLISTING,” one typical tweet read, while others shared tips on how to dodge similar FoI requests in future.

On a site with more than 200 million active accounts and where 500 million tweets are sent every day, controversies are inevitably common. Indeed, in the eyes of many, Twitter has become synonymous with tribalism and polarisation. When the world’s richest man, Elon Musk – himself not one to shy away from a Twitter spat – finally completed his purchase of the site on 28 October, technology magazine The Verge ran an editorial simply entitled “Welcome to hell, Elon”.

Twitter matters because it is the social media site used by politicians, journalists and other public figures to discuss current affairs; Musk himself has called it the digital age’s “de facto public town square”. But Musk’s takeover – and his hints about rowing on back hate speech protections introduced in recent years – has prompted many academics to consider leaving Twitter.

The question is whether disengaging from a place where higher education and its ideals often come under influential attack risks allowing anti-university rhetoric to go unchecked. Or are such public spats self-defeating, only serving to enflame tensions that may just peter out if left alone? And if academics are to stay and fight, should their interventions be bound by any form of scholarly standards? Is relying on expertise even the best way to rebut attacks in a predominantly performative space?


Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary healthcare at the University of Oxford, who became a Twitter celebrity thanks to her tweets about the importance of mask-wearing during the pandemic, argues that using Twitter to “co-create” shared knowledge helps to show academia’s worth.

“We can’t just do the science any more…We have a responsibility as scientists to engage with citizens,” she says.

Academics often feel a sense of responsibility to stand up and challenge misinformation when they see it, says Darren Linvill, associate professor at Clemson University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences and an expert in social media disinformation and its influence on civil discourse.

Linvill was “proud” to see scientific colleagues speak out on issues that related to their area of expertise during the pandemic. “They were doing their job when they were expressing factual scientific information and engaging in respectful debate through social media,” he says. “It might not be the job they get paid for, but it is still their job.”

But one question is whether such engagement extends beyond subject-specific expertise? After all, academics’ accounts often reflect their personal as well as their professional interests.

Greenhalgh says she has “a composite identity” as an academic, GP, wife, mother and wild swimmer, and her account reflects this. She doesn’t “have any problem” reflecting those other aspects of her identity in her tweets, but the “primary reason” she is active on the site is to court encounters that “help me with my work” or that further “what I think of as a moral purpose of trying to make society a better place”.

Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at UCL, hit 200,000 followers during the pandemic but admits she has been more self-censorious of late, “partly because if I become too much one way [politically], people will start doubting the science, which I don’t want them to do”.

However, some academics “find it very difficult not to respond” in kind to attacks, she concedes – and they “end up in fights a lot” – often provoked by the “people out there who really hate us and have tweeted horrible things like ‘You are charlatans and fakes.’”

Sadly, such abuse is now par for the course for prominent academics online. Greenhalgh is blasé about the “occasional death threats” she receives, although she has seen fit to block about 30,000 users. “They are people with 16 followers – usually aggressive young men,” she says. “It is the equivalent of a bloke sitting in the corner of the pub leering at you. I don’t think we need to give a lot of attention to them.”

She is worried by “groups that are systematically organised and deliberately and maliciously manipulate public opinion through social media”. But trying to engage with disinformation on this scale is not the job of an academic, she believes. Rather, scholars should see their role as helping to advise and guide regular users who are confused by particular issues or debates.

“There are a lot of people who are really keen to hear from someone who is just trying to be an honest academic and are honest about the uncertainties as well. People ask me stuff and I am very happy to say I haven’t got a clue,” she says.


But can you really persuade someone to change their mind on Twitter? Petra Boynton, social psychologist and author of Being Well in Academia, says having a conversation is not the reason that many people post: “I think the biggest driver is shaming; the goal is to silence, even when we are saying that isn’t the goal,” she says. “I think if I was genuinely looking to change someone’s mind and I thought it could be changed, I would do better having that conversation quietly, privately maybe.”

That view is endorsed by Irina Dumitrescu, professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn. She has been prominent on Twitter, with more than 10,000 followers, but recently took a self-imposed break from the site. She feels the platform “trains its users to serve it with content that provokes negative emotions, most of all anger”, while giving them no control over how it shapes their reactions, or even what they can see in their feeds.

“If we want to defend universities, we need to articulate their purpose and the kinds of minds they are supposed to train. I’m not sure that the level of a lot of the discourse on Twitter represents the best of university thinking,” she says.

Moreover, the “highly politicised” nature of Twitter makes it all but pointless to use it for “serious conversations that ought to be happening. It is worth talking about which books we should teach and the science of trigger warnings and discussing what the goals of a classroom are and how those can be achieved. But social media forces everybody to take a side and stick to it. It is exactly the wrong set of values that are driving the discussion. It should be a spirit of enquiry, curiosity and mutual productive criticism.”

Another academic to have left Twitter recently is Christopher Schaberg, professor of English and director of the Center for Editing and Publishing at Loyola University New Orleans. He says that ever since its launch in 2006, Twitter’s great promise for scholars has been to engage the masses with their work and expertise, and Schaberg himself was once an evangelist for the site, encouraging colleagues and students to sign up. But he felt a huge weight lifted as he realised how much “noise I had been living with”. In his view, the way social media is designed makes it very hard for messages to stick with users who are trained to constantly “move on to the next thing”. Still, he has felt guilty for opting out of a “real public forum”.

And, for André Brock, associate professor in the School of Literature, Media and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, such guilt is justified.

“You can say it is impossible to change minds – or you can say it is going to be hard to change minds and [nevertheless] try to identify opportunities where you can,” he says. “If you want a better world, you have to live in the world to make it better, not just say, ‘[Twitter is] a hell site and I’ll never go there again.’”

Brock himself is a participant in “Black Twitter”, which he sees as part support group and part social space, playing a role in “policing” the notion that free speech online means “you should be able to say whatever you want to whoever you want without consequence”. He is “very much a call-them-out type of person” because “if you don’t name and shame, people will feel emboldened”. His relatively large following, in excess of 21,000, means that “people pay attention when I call out bad behaviour,” he says.

He is unclear whether it really makes a difference to call out those he considers attention seekers – who often enjoy far bigger platforms than he does, both on social media and on mainstream television. “Until you get control of the media apparatus that [is] pushing these things, I don’t know if you can fight it in any serious way…You can’t fight outrage with calm, reasonable arguments,” he says. But he continues to believe that combating “anti-intellectualism” is, in itself, worth doing.

In Linvill’s experience, academics’ ability to change minds depends on the individual and their affiliation. But someone from a prestigious institution does not necessarily have more leverage.

“I know for a fact there are individuals in my state who would listen to my expertise who wouldn’t listen to someone from Harvard or Princeton – because I teach at a school that, maybe, they went to, or their kids went to,” Linvill says. “I am a fellow South Carolinian. Every academic carries a different type of responsibility for different audiences.”

Moreover, a fact not often publicised is that the average Twitter user rarely posts anything, Linvill says: studies have found that such “lurkers” could make up nearly half of all active accounts. When considering whether it is possible to influence public opinion, many don’t think about this group, he says.

“To a degree, the idea of persuasion is a myth, especially when you are dealing with people with well-formed thoughts and attitudes – or even poorly formed ones, in many cases,” he says. “But you may not be representing your perspective simply to the person you are actually engaging with but also to the 100 other people who might read that thread. They need to know there are other perspectives out there, whatever the idea might be. While the person you are engaging with may not be encountering that idea for the first time, surely somebody else might be.”


But academics, of course, do not always conduct themselves online as sober voices of knowledge and reason.

When Katy Barnett, professor of private law at the University of Melbourne, tweeted an article she had written for the Sydney Morning Herald last year, she was expecting some response. Her point – that universities were losing public support because lecturers were too quick to impose their own views on students – was controversial, but, she felt, needed to be said given the threats to the sector from the country’s then conservative government.

Yet the backlash was swift and brutal: “All these people attacked me, [saying] ‘You’re stupid! How did you make professor?’ or ‘Why are they [the newspaper] publishing this crap?’ There were letters to the editor, people calling for me to get fired. It was awful stuff,” she says. And most of it, she adds, came from fellow academics.

“They are playing to their clique and their followers, but they do not realise there are other people watching,” she says. “They look like heroes to their bubble, but, outside, people are asking, ‘What is this? It looks like pointless fighting.’”

Far from helping the sector, Barnett believes, the way many academics act online simply provides more fodder for those who wish to perpetuate a culture war against them. She thinks the public now equates academia with the “vocal and aggressive” minority they see on Twitter, fuelling demands for departments to be shut down or research defunded.

But others see aggression as necessary to getting the message across. As an early adopter of Twitter, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, associate professor of English and education at the University of Michigan, “prided myself up until about 2018 on saying whatever I wanted on social media…and never ending up in any entanglement.” That changed after a row with Star Trek actor William Shatner over whether the American Library Association should remove Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from its legacy award because of criticism of the Little House on the Prairie author’s depictions of Native and African Americans. Thomas rebutted Shatner’s criticism of the move and argued that Star Trek had its own race issues.

“I was right. And the one personality quirk that I think gets me through all this is that if I think I’m right I’m like a dog with a bone,” she says.

More recently, Thomas went viral with her defence of her friend Uju Anya, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, whose tweets linking the late Queen Elizabeth to genocide and colonialism – including wishing the monarch an “excruciating” death – sparked a major online ruckus as the monarch’s health worsened in September.

Anya’s institution, Carnegie Mellon University, said her remarks “do not represent the values of the institution, nor the standards of discourse we seek to foster”. But Thomas, who is also African American, backed her up, tweeting: “Telling the colonized how they should feel about their colonizer's health and wellness is like telling my people that we ought to worship the Confederacy.”

The controversy was used by some commentators to rally the public against “woke professors”. But, while Thomas says she never meant any disrespect, she is not planning to tone down her online output any time soon. “Twitter speech is very hyperbolic,” she explains. “You can say something mildly and just get your friends liking it. Or you can say it with enough snark, with enough style, [so that] you could get your tweets shared by hundreds of thousands and seen by millions. What route would you choose?”

As a tenured, relatively well-off professor, Thomas increasingly sees the need to speak up loudly for equity and justice in higher education and to defend such ideals when they come under attack because “if we don’t, who will?”

The problem, according to Nick Osbaldiston, senior lecturer in sociology at James Cook University in Queensland, is that it is easy for “the activist academic mindset” to “get out of hand quickly” on Twitter. “I don’t think the academics who do it mean to do it, but it can become very quickly a mass online public shaming of individuals. I don’t like the phrase ‘cancel culture’, but if you can get a label or a stigma to stick, it denounces someone as not worth listening to.”

Osbaldiston says he has tried to get academics on Twitter to take a stance on, for example, the situation in Myanmar, but most only seem concerned with certain “trigger issues”.

“I wish academia would become a little less worried about social media and we could go back to just doing our work again,” he says. “Are we really engaging with [people]? I don’t think so. Engagement, for me, is going to the community hall to talk about climate-change adaptation. That, to me, is meaningful – which is what the university wants. But the problem with that is you can’t count it – but you can count how many times your paper has been tweeted.”

Pagel agrees that Twitter is a threat to the reputation of higher education because there are “too many scientists fighting on it all the time”. Academics, she says, all have WhatsApp groups to encourage friends and colleagues to promote each other’s work. Often, however, these can be used to appeal for allies to come to the defence of a colleague being criticised.

“It is a coordinated attack, even if that is not what is intended,” she says. “For the recipient, suddenly they have all these people on their timeline saying ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ – in a polite, academic way…There is a sense that some people deserve to be trolled – [a sense of] ‘I know what is right and you don’t’. I really dislike that. It is across the whole spectrum. Everyone is angry at each other.”


So should academics on Twitter be held to more polite, scholarly standards?

“I make sure I never say anything that I wouldn’t say to someone’s face,” says Barnett. “I am mindful of the fact that sometimes people treat Twitter like it is the pub. The tenor of the conversations can be like when you have had a bit to drink. But it’s not [the pub].”

But others think that the distinction between the way people conduct themselves on Twitter and in purely academic forums is inevitable and justified. Thomas points out that younger academics’ social media presence predates their professional work. “I have been talking to people online since I was an undergrad,” she says. “We spend a significant proportion of our day there, and the way we communicate in that space is very different than the way you communicate in academia…It did not occur to me to mind what I say because this is work.”

But whatever their online tone, some academics believe that they should at least be careful to make only verifiable claims. Dumitrescu, for instance, says scholars’ titles carry a level of trust among the public and an “expectation I have tried to be as accurate and as honest as I can be” – including regarding what academics themselves pick up and retweet from other social media users.

Moreover, says Pagel, getting something wrong is likely to result in the academic being “jumped on” by opponents: “People assume you [made the false claim] on purpose, and they screenshot it and it stays with you forever.” As a result, Pagel often spends hours crafting her threads – taking care to back up each claim with graphs and evidence.

But, for Greenhalgh, the messy nature of academic Twitter reflects the fact that, in reality, many scientific claims are contested by other scientists.

“This idea that in scientific journals we only publish things that are 100 per cent definitive and accurate isn’t true at all. What we say is, ‘This is the state of knowledge. This is the state of ignorance and the state of uncertainty.’” The same is true of scientists’ tweets, she argues.

Musk’s recent reinstatement of Donald Trump’s Twitter account – honouring a poll in which he asked whether he should do so – will only add to fears that Twitter is becoming less interested in content moderation, heralding a potential rise in abuse and misinformation on the site. There are also fears that an exodus of compliance staff could see the platform upended by failure to comply with European privacy laws. But for all the talk of mass migrations to alternatives, such as Mastodon, most academics currently appear, at most, to be hedging their bets, keeping their Twitter accounts active as they await Musk’s next move. And, according to Brock, there is a history of rhetoric far outpacing action: most academics who say they plan to leave Twitter are merely “posturing” and typically end up coming back because they “miss it when it’s gone”, he says. Indeed, it is no coincidence that academics have hit on Mastodon as their alternative platform: it is widely depicted as an open-source version of Twitter. Hence, many of the issues around the use of Twitter by academics will also apply to Mastodon.

For her part, though, Thomas plan to stay on Twitter “until the bitter end”. And many universities, she believes, are quite content for their faculty to tweet as forthrightly as she does. Prior to coming to Michigan, she worked at the University of Pennsylvania; the only time either institution objected to her tweets was when she live-tweeted a faculty meeting – which taught her never to openly critique internal matters.

“Penn and Michigan have been surprisingly supportive. They love it when their faculty are in the news, really,” she says.

“It is kind of cynical, but I think in the postmodern marketplace, even a controversy shows that your faculty are being talked about: people are seeing them, their research is being taken up…As long as you are not in the news for something criminal, controversy is an admissions boon.”

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