Fri, 21 June 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
Mobile UK and Mobile Infrastructure Forum publish a six-point planning framework ahead of the General Election Partner content
Why the next government must make fraud a national priority Partner content
Press releases

Westminster's Twitter addiction: what would it take to kill off X?

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

8 min read

Westminster loves to moan about the social media platform formerly known as Twitter even as it becomes ever less useful to politicians and journalists alike. What would it take to finally kill off X and what would replace it?

When Sam Coates, Sky News deputy political editor, joined the lobby, getting quotes from MPs meant ringing their office and hoping someone picked up.

By the time PoliticsHome’s own political editor, Adam Payne, began his career in 2016, MPs were a couple of clicks away on Twitter, reachable in seconds. “All I’ve ever known is Twitter,” says Payne. “It was a huge part of my training. Twitter was the place where you report and find the stories.”

"Before Musk’s changes to the verification system, maybe eight of 10 accounts I’d look at to research articles were useful. Now, about two are useful"

Twitter revolutionised political communications. It accelerated the pace of news and enabled rapid public dialogue between journalists, politicians and Twitter users. The UK was particularly active on Twitter: it formed Twitter’s sixth biggest user base, accounting for a third of the UK’s internet users. Six in 10 of the UK’s Twitter users were on the platform to consume national political news.

Twitter was both the place where Liz Truss’ premiership got outlived by a lettuce, and where Boris Johnson’s final cabinet ministers uploaded resignation letter after resignation letter before forcing him to step down. What germinated on Twitter grew into a story in the papers, which then become the next subject of battle in Westminster. It had the Westminster village firmly plugged in.

But since the richest individual on the planet, Elon Musk, acquired Twitter in October 2022 and rebranded it ‘X’, the platform is losing users and advertisers fast. X lost over a million users in the first month of Musk’s takeover, and has lost half its advertising revenue.

Musk reinstated contentious accounts including those of Donald Trump and notorious influencer Andrew Tate, while suspending accounts of journalists making investigations into his affairs. 

For now, there has been no exodus from X in Westminster. Yet how will the village fare if X declines to the point it becomes unusable?

A key change implemented by Musk was to alter the model of verification, to make revenue from subscription fees. Verified users, to whom many would turn as a trusted source of news, lost their ‘blue ticks’. Now, verification on X merely requires payment of the subscription fee.

Stephen Bush, associate editor at the Financial Times, believes X isn’t as useful to him since Musk took over: “Before Musk’s changes to the verification system, maybe eight of 10 accounts I’d look at to research articles were useful. Now, about two are useful,” he says.

Wired recently reported that those who turned to X to follow the Israel-Hamas conflict found it unusually difficult to find fact-checked information, instead, finding old repurposed videos and even video game footage presented as a Hamas attack. 

In a now-deleted tweet, Musk himself recommended two accounts that are known for spreading disinformation. 

Ben Ansell, professor of comparative democratic institutions at Oxford University, argues the new verification system is designed in such a way that verified accounts are no longer trustworthy sources, with many verified accounts having only a small-scale following. 

Ansell dubs this latest phenomenon as the “4chanification” of Twitter: “The only people who want to buy the blue tick are those who are on the alt right and agree with Elon Musk. Paying for verification is much less attractive for the previous, more liberal, user base and advertisers,” he says.

With trustworthy news sources and voices being bumped down the pecking order behind obscure users who are willing to pay to be verified, are politicians and journalists really making valuable use of their time on X?

A Labour aide finds drafting tweets for MPs to be the least enjoyable part of their job, but simply sees it as a necessary evil: “We use X just as much as we did pre-Musk. So long as journalists remain on X and the functionality is robust, we’ll use it.”

Coates, despite occasionally worrying about Musk’s dabbles in geopolitics, still regards X as an effective use of his time as a journalist: “The actual journalistic picture is much clearer with X. And as it stands, there’s not a comparable place for people to jump,” he says.

In July, social media giant Meta launched Threads as the so-called Twitter-killer. Within two hours of its launch, two million people had downloaded the app, rising to 70 million two days later. Government ministers including Grant Shapps and James Cleverly signed up, as did shadow cabinet ministers Wes Streeting and Alison McGovern, as well as some members of the lobby.

However, when asked about the potential for Threads to become the new online home for Westminster, Coates is unconvinced: “Threads launched without a desktop version. You also can’t see if a post is popular or not. And the Threads executives said they didn’t want people doing ‘politics’ on Threads, which speaks for itself!”

Bush is equally sceptical of Threads, regarding it as too aligned with Instagram to be useful to journalists: “After five minutes on Threads you learn nothing useful and have no ideas for your next piece. I don’t think there is any value to MPs on Threads either,” he says.  

In its founders’ aversion to the platform becoming a space for ‘politics’, Meta’s Threads appears to be a paper tiger. Indeed, the bubble burst quickly after Threads was first launched, with the number of active users crashing down in the following weeks. 

While it has a fraction of the investment available to X and Meta, X-like microblogging network Bluesky is regarded by some as a resurrection of the Twitter of our recent past. Bush considers it a promising replacement for X, hosting fewer, but more politically engaged, users: “When I first joined BlueSky it felt empty, but now I get more and more engagements with my posts,” he says. 

Although it remains an invite-only network for the time being, Bush does not believe that will hinder its eventual expansion: “Lots of stuff started out as invite-only, even Gmail!”

Ansell agrees that Bluesky recalls images of Twitter and is certainly a more earnest platform than X, but concludes it is too small and dull to be a viable replacement.

Ultimately, the moment for the critical mass in Westminster to move to another online home simply hasn’t arrived. Westminster thus remains firmly plugged into X until competitors can make a product that vastly improves its offering or, more likely, it gradually becomes unusable under the erratic Musk. 

In part, the revolutionary impact of X makes its looming decline a sad prospect for those in the village who have spent their entire careers on it. Yet some of Westminster’s advisers say X’s decline might be the catalyst politicians need to rethink how they connect with voters. 

A former special adviser to the government tells The House: “That quick take on news where it feeds our short attention span isn’t good for public engagement. X declining might help us truly rethink how we engage with voters.” 

Many aides believe MPs spend too much time on X. A Labour aide says: “X isn’t a good focus group. If it dies, I think journalists and politicians having those clearer, longer conversations on the phone can be a good thing for voters.”

Coates maintains a return to the days of paging ministers would be “nonsense”. 

Yet while Bush hopes for a replacement for Twitter, he sees a positive side to its decline: “It would be a reminder to journalists that the important stuff politicians do takes place in the House of Commons, not necessarily on a website owned by one person and run according to their whims.”

Perhaps journalists might be reluctant to return to the less efficient days of phone calls. Yet the general ambivalence of Westminster about X’s future speaks to a desire for a platform that doesn’t just feed the news cycle, but helps connect politicians with ordinary voters. 

However, problems with Westminster and civic engagement are bigger than X. Even platforms such as Facebook, where Westminster aides admit ‘ordinary voters’ are most likely to be reached, can host toxic debates and spread disinformation. 

Ansell is unsure that an online platform focused on more civic engagement would avoid the trap of toxicity that consumes X. “Debating politics on social media is a bit like having road rage,” he says. “People feel like they can be more aggressive because there’s that distance between them and the other car. It’s the same for any kind of social media – be that X or Facebook or even Nextdoor when people get heated about LTNs in Oxford.”

The eventual decline of X may present a fresh opportunity for a more transparent, democratic form of political dialogue.

As for the age-old question of how politicians can better engage with their voters, the solution is more likely to be found on the doorstep than in any replacement for X. 

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.