TORONTO — Canada was plunging into the H1N1 crisis, when Anne Marie Aikins first encountered Twitter.
The media relations maven was working for Toronto Public Health, which saw the new platform as an inexpensive way of quickly sharing vital information that could potentially save lives.
The rationale was similar when she later worked at the Toronto Public Library and 2,300 workers went on strike in 2012, pushing branches to temporarily close, and then at GO Transit-operator Metrolinx, where Twitter was a go-to for communicating service disruptions.
But these days, professionals and organizations are pulling back from tweeting. Aikins, who left Metrolinx after almost 11 years in January, and others feel it's because changes made by new owner Elon Musk have made Twitter "far less credible than it ever was before and less reliable."
That belief is spreading among professionals who once saw the platform as a way to build networks, discover news, connect with others and disseminate trustworthy information in a hurry. They now feel inundated with misinformation and new policies that rattle them every time they log on but have yet to find an alternative offering the same immediacy or connections.
"It's clear that this is no longer the platform it was," said Courtney Radsch, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
“It has been an important platform during crisis or emerging news and it's a shame ... there isn't a good replacement.”
Twitter's descent has come at the hands of Musk, the unpredictable billionaire behind rocket builder SpaceX and automaker Tesla, who bought the platform for US$44 billion last October.
He's since orchestrated a dizzying array of changes, the most high profile being his November plan to strip notable users of their blue verification check marks unless they pay for Twitter's premium service.
When accounts impersonating Tesla, gaming giant Nintendo and pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly sprang up and paid for verification, Musk dumped his check mark removal plans, but revived them earlier this month.
Everyone from Beyoncé to Pope Francis to Kim Kardashian lost their check mark last week, but then many returned in a haphazard fashion. Some had no idea why they had regained the stamp, despite not paying for Twitter’s premium service. Musk later conceded he paid for many like basketball star LeBron James, author Stephen King and actor William Shatner to retain the mark.
"Now I can't tell who's paid for it and who's real," Aikins said, noting Musk is even allowing anonymous accounts to be verified so long as they pay and provide a confirmed phone number.
Musk made changes to media accounts, including NPR’s and the BBC’s, too. He labelled CBC’s “government-funded.”
The public broadcaster objected to the label, saying it receives public funding through a parliamentary appropriation voted upon by all MPs, and its editorial independence is enshrined in the Broadcasting Act. Musk later changed CBC's label to “69% government-funded” before he dropped such tags entirely over the weekend.
In the wake of these moves, Aikins is seeing public organizations tweet less and suspects it's because of how easy it’s become to target brands with misinformation that could tarnish their image.
"It's tiresome and hard for staff to manage that," she said.
The developments have also diminished Twitter's reach.
"The immediacy of Twitter and the number of eyes that you'd see on a tweet quickly during an emergency is just not what it used to be," Aikins said.
Radsch similarly sees “a lot less activity” from journalists, media outlets and academics and attributes it to “whiplash” from policy changes and Musk’s relaxed moderation and harassment stance.
Twitter posted Monday that it will strive for “freedom of speech, not reach” and is against censorship and shadowbanning, when tweets are less visible or hidden, often because its poster violated policies.
“A lot of people aren't going to want to be active on there, when they have to face harassment and hate filled speech that no longer have any way to be dealt with,” Radsch said.
“It was already imperfect to begin with, but now it's just gotten infinitely worse.”
Twitter responded to a request for comment about changes to the platform with an auto-generated email bearing a poop emoji, its standard press response since March.
Toronto parenting blogger Aneta Alaei is staying on Twitter to boost her audience but said the platform has changed since she joined in December 2013.
Back then, she’d scroll Twitter upon waking because it was "a better relayer of what was happening than my local news or social media like Facebook and Instagram."
"It was real-time. Sometimes it was raw," she said in an email.
"Sometimes things were trending that were not in line with my opinions but I read through those threads as well and broadened my horizons."
After Musk’s takeover, many accounts she interacted with vanished. She thought they blocked her, but later learned they left because they didn’t trusted Musk.
"I stopped waking up and heading to Twitter around that time,” she said. “I still use it as a platform to share my blog posts but don't engage as much as I used to."
Now that anyone can pay for a check mark, she feels she can't trust much of what is on the platform and won’t seek verification for her account.
"Why would you pay to use a platform that has now become a running joke where people who have no audience anywhere else can now feel relevant?"
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2023.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press