Nearly half of environmental users went inactive after Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, research finds.
By Justine Calma, a science reporter covering the environment, climate, and energy with a decade of experience. She is also the host of the Hell or High Water podcast.
Almost half of “Environmental Twitter” has vanished from the platform now called X, new research shows. A wave of “environmentally oriented” users abandoned the site after Elon Musk took over, according to a study published this week in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
The study confirms fears about how Musk’s leadership might quell climate discourse and scientific research on the platform. Before he took the wheel, Twitter was an important tool for environmental researchers and activists alike.
“We saw that there was a vibrant community engaging in discourse around environmental topics. This then raised the question of how this community may be impacted by changes to Twitter’s governance,” Charlotte Chang, lead author of the research and an assistant professor of biology and environmental analysis at Pomona College, said in a press release this week.
That once “vibrant community” on X has withered, Chang and her team found. It’s the loss of an online ecosystem that hasn’t yet been fully replaced by another platform. The lack of a central place for everyone to gather online could hurt conservation efforts and climate action, the paper warns.
Chang and her colleagues analyzed Twitter activity between July 2019 and April 2023. They identified 380,000 users that “frequently discussed” climate change and biodiversity conservation, a group the paper refers to as “Environmental Twitter.” By this April, only 52.5 percent of those users were still active, which the researchers defined as having posted at least once every 15 days.
Members of Environmental Twitter were much more likely to drop off the platform than other users. The researchers compared them to a broader control group of individuals that were really involved in Twitter discussions of the 2020 presidential election, dubbed “Politics Twitter.” There were 458,000 members of Politics Twitter after removing accounts that were also part of Environmental Twitter in order to avoid double counting. Only 20.6 percent of those users went inactive over the same time period.
For both groups, but more dramatic within Environmental Twitter, the proportion of active users dropped sharply after Musk’s acquisition of the platform was finalized in October 2022. The trend coincides with other problems on Twitter that have cropped up for scientists and environmental advocates since Musk stepped in and made big changes on the platform.
Musk welcomed back people who had previously been barred from posting harmful content, including accounts that spread lies about climate change. Climate misinformation became more prevalent on the platform, with the use of #climatescam doubling in tweets in the month after Musk officially took over. Other research documented an uptick in hate speech on the platform, and X Corp. is now suing the group that published that report.
“To my loyal followers, I can no longer remain active here,” Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and water expert with 98,400 followers on X, said in a pinned tweet thread from May. “I’ll only post new material on Mastodon, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other platforms that may develop over time that offer opportunities to communicate and interact with justice, respect, and ethical perspectives now utterly abandoned here,” he says.
On top of that, Musk essentially closed the book on academic research that relied on Twitter data. The company essentially priced many researchers out when it started charging up to tens of thousands of dollars a month for access to its API, which lets third-party developers gather data. (Twitter announced its new API pricing around the time Chang and her team were wrapping up their analysis.) And with so many users abandoning the platform, it’s becoming a less useful space to monitor public discourse or reach out to the public anyway.
A similar survey published by Nature yesterday found that half of the 9,200 scientists who responded have cut down on the amount of time they spent on X over the past six months. Around 46 percent of the survey participants said they had joined different social media platforms, with Mastodon leading the pack of alternative sites.
It’s probably worth poking around to see where former members of Environmental Twitter have wound up, Chang and her co-authors write. Environmental advocates might even want to launch some kind of campaign to migrate people to a new platform of their choice, the paper says, “so that there are continued opportunities for information exchange, mobilization, and research.”
After The Verge reached out to X, it responded with an email saying, “We’ll get back to you soon.” The line has become a typical response to reporters, replacing a poop emoji that was a standard reply for months after Musk’s takeover.
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