Classroom Technology

Will Elon Musk’s Takeover of Twitter Start an Educator Exodus?

By Alyson Klein — November 10, 2022 7 min read
Elon Musk speaks at the SATELLITE Conference and Exhibition on March 9, 2020, in Washington. Twitter's new owner and Tesla CEO Musk has sold nearly $4 billion worth of Tesla shares, according to regulatory filings.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Los Angeles Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, may seem like big celebrities in the world of K-12 education.

But none of them has as many Twitter followers as Nicholas Ferroni.

Ferroni, a former soap opera actor once named People Magazine’s Sexiest Teacher Alive, uses the social media platform—and his 125,500 followers—to promote LGBTQ community rights, culturally responsive teaching, measures to make educators’ jobs more manageable, and other priorities.

But now, Ferroni, who teaches social studies in Union, N.J., is wondering if it’s time to move on from Twitter.

Late last month, Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur, took over Twitter, promising big changes he contends will advance free speech. Critics, though, worry Musk’s policies will instead allow the hate and dangerous misinformation Twitter management previously sought to squelch to go unchecked.

For now, Ferroni, like many teachers who have found a community on Twitter, is in watch-and-wait mode.

“If it gets to a point where people are brutally attacking and demoralizing and lying about educators in general, that’s something I won’t be able to stomach,” he said.

In the days since Oct. 27, when Musk officially took over the platform, many educators have been similarly soul searching. Twitter has offered teachers and school and district leaders a corner of the internet to interact with their communities, swap lesson ideas, find out what’s going on in schools around the country, air their frustrations with the profession, and get inspired.

Some educators—including Ferroni—have also used the platform as a way to showcase their side hustles as authors, speakers, and consultants.

“I use Twitter to make my job easier, to share with others, to grow my network, and to learn,” said Kristina Holzweiss, the education technology enrichment specialist at Syosset High School on New York’s Long Island, who has nearly 20,000 followers. Right now, she’s also using the social media platform in part to promote the two children’s books she authored and has no immediate plans to leave.

So far, she hasn’t seen big changes in her Twitter feed, which she chalks up to how easy it is to curate content on the platform. Still, she points out that “some parts of it can be cesspools,” which is true of all social media. “You have to know that people are going to voice their opinions, whatever the format is.”

The free speech debate has serious, real-world implications

For now, Ferroni is using the potential transformation of Twitter as an opportunity to probe some of his favorite questions with his students. He said those include: “Is there a problem with allowing complete and open and unfiltered free speech? What is free speech? What is hate speech?”

His classes have plenty of fodder for those discussions.

The most prominent example of how possible changes to Twitter may have a big impact: After the 2020 election, President Donald Trump and many of his allies in the Republican party tweeted that there was widespread voter fraud, despite an overwhelming lack of evidence that that was the case.

Twitter fact-checked Trump’s assertions. Some applauded the move. But Trump and his allies decried it as infringing on the president’s right to free speech, and critics of Trump said the move was too little, too late.

Ultimately, the former president was banned from the platform after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which sought to block Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s victory. Even as Trump’s supporters stormed the building, the former president continued to tweet out lies about the election results, fueling violence and putting lawmakers’ and police officers’ lives in danger.

Musk has said he would allow Trump—who has started his own platform, Truth Social—to rejoin Twitter. Though he originally appeared to embrace a no-restrictions approach to content on the platform, Musk recently announced that he would form a content-moderation panel with “widely diverse views.” A spokesman for Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on Musk’s plans.

Republican lawmakers who are big allies of Trump—including Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Jim Jordan of Ohio—have cheered Musk’s acquisition of the platform, while Democrats expressed serious concerns.

Almost immediately after taking over the company, Musk fired Twitter’s top executives, dissolved its board, and laid off about half the staff, stoking fears that there would be far fewer people advocating and doing the daily work of moderating the platform.

There was a measurable, immediate spike in hate speech on Twitter in the hours after Musk took the reins of the company, according to an analysis by researchers at Montclair State University.

In the week prior to Musk assuming control, specific racial slurs and threatening language were used an average of 84 times an hour, or a little more than 1,000 times in a 12-hour period, the researchers found. However, in the 12 hours just after Musk assumed control of the platform, that number more than quadrupled, to 4,778 times.

Those changes were enough to send Nate Bowling heading for the virtual exit door.

“If you are a Black person online, who has opinions, then bile rolls into your mentions on a pretty regular basis,” Bowling, who several years ago left his job as a social studies teacher in Tacoma, Wash., where he was named teacher of the year, to work at an embassy school in the United Arab Emirates, said in a phone interview.

After the 2016 election, “I was getting racially harassed and attacked and called the n-word on a weekly basis,” Bowling said. Most of the Twitter accounts that harassed him are no longer active, because Twitter suspended them, he added.

But Bowling doesn’t believe the platform, under Musk, would do the same. He’s switching to Mastadon, a social media platform with a lower profile but also with what Bowling sees as a more civil discourse.

He knows the change will have consequences for his ability to reach a larger audience to share his views on social justice and education.

Bowling’s big Twitter presence appears to have driven listeners to his podcast, “Nerd Farmer,” and helped him secure speaking engagements, including talking to real estate agents about how segregated neighborhoods lead to segregated schools.

He’s giving that up, as well as the nearly 24,000 followers he’s accumulated over more than a decade on the platform. But he doesn’t think he has a choice.

“The idea that in the name of some contorted version of [free] speech we’re potentially gonna allow bigots and people who have fomented political violence a place in the common sphere?” Bowling said. “I just can’t co-sign it.”

Changes to verification could create headaches for schools

Musk has also proposed a key change to the verification process, in which Twitter investigates a particular account to determine if the person behind it is who they say they are. This is particularly important for distinguishing a Twitter account of a real official—like a school superintendent or principal—from an imposter. Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms use a similar process. On Twitter, accounts that are verified carry a blue check mark.

Becoming verified can be a long and opaque process. Dozens of school districts have reportedly tried to get verification and been rejected.

Musk has said he will allow anyone who pays Twitter $8 a month to become verified and will charge already verified users the same amount to keep their status.

It remains to be seen if that policy would allow, for instance, a high schooler to create an account in their principal’s name, pay $8, and then tweet that school is closed for the week.

That could add to the confusion already surrounding impostor accounts.

“For families, it’s vital to know whether posts about their children’s schools are the real deal,” said Mellissa Braham, the associate director of the National School Public Relations Association, in an email. NSPRA and other education groups have been pushing Twitter and other platforms to create a separate verification process for schools and districts.

The contacts at Twitter who are working with the education organizations say they are still “committed to that conversation,” Braham wrote. “But of course, many details are still emerging,” she added.

One big question heavy Twitter users in the K-12 world are now asking themselves: If not Twitter, where do we go?

Suzy Brooks, the director of instructional technology for the Mashpee public schools on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, recalled that when she first joined the platform, “I met so many people, and then when you’d go to larger conferences, it would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I know you on Twitter!’” said Brooks during an online panel discussion hosted by ThriveinEDU, an education consulting organization. “That was always exciting.”

The Thrive panel discussed Mastadon, TikTok, Discord, Facebook, and other platforms, including some startups.

“I’m staying,” Brooks said. “I feel like I’m not there to serve Twitter, it’s there to serve me. I know that there are still things in the periphery that I don’t agree with, whether it’s political or pornography. But [Twitter is] not where I’m gonna put my big effort into anymore for connecting and improving my practice.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Will Elon Musk’s Takeover of Twitter Start an Educator Exodus?

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