Sophia Zhao, Senior Illustrator

A Twitter exchange last May between entrepreneur Elon Musk and Howard Forman, professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, public health, management and economics, foreshadowed some of the controversy that has consumed the social media platform in recent months. 

Forman, who worked as a health policy fellow in the United States Senate, has often made political commentary on Twitter, where he has almost 60 thousand followers. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Forman began tweeting mostly about public health and healthcare because he “had the audience” and said it was an area people were interested in. 

Forman’s contributions exemplify the scientific community’s large presence on Twitter. Scientists tweet about their latest research, engage the public through educational content and provide opinions on current events. Science, though usually behind the closed doors of a lab or academic institution, can be accessed freely on Twitter through the robust community of scientists posting online — a community that has recently been rocked by controversy, driving some scientists off the platform.

On May 18, 2022, Forman, known as @thehowie, responded to a tweet from Musk, @elonmusk, who at the time was in the process of acquiring Twitter. Musk tweeted that he expected political attacks on him to escalate in the coming months. Forman chimed in.

“When you are explicitly political, you should expect people to treat you as such,” Forman’s tweet read. “Which part of that is confusing to you?”

Musk responded directly to Forman’s rebuttal by targeting his support for vaccinations and describing Yale as the “epicenter of the woke mind virus that is attempting to destroy civilization.” Following this incident, Forman faced a series of hate and antagonism from supporters of Musk. 

“Within 20 minutes, my office received a threat on the telephone,” Forman said. “His followers are rabid passionate followers who will defend him.”

Thinking it “might thicken [his] skin,” Forman recalled, he became more active on social media and has since grown to be able to tolerate the negative aspects of the platform and express his views freely. However, speaking on the type of hostility that users on the platform may encounter, Forman cautioned that the platform is not an easy place to be. 

But the reach his commentary can have on Twitter makes it worth it to him.

“When [people] say, ‘I’m not going to use Twitter’ or something else, [they] really are sacrificing something of substance,” Forman said. “It’s not a simple thing to just abandon Twitter, because you’re abandoning an enormous potential audience.”

Concerns over content moderation

 Five months after the exchange with Forman, Musk acquired Twitter and became the social media platform’s primary decision-maker and leader. Since then, Musk has taken significant measures to redefine how this platform operates and how various perspectives and viewpoints can surface on it, highlighting the increased concern the scientific community has surrounding the ability to use this platform. 

Among the numerous changes listed by Musk, the main issues arise in regard to his policy surrounding content moderation and the removal and reinstatement of controversial figures’ accounts, most notably Donald Trump. Musk also fired around half of Twitter’s employees, eliminating a number who worked on content moderation. 

“From the moment that people [started] talk[ing] about Elon Musk taking over Twitter, there was a serious concern that what he was going to try to do was have one level of moderation,” Forman said. 

According to Forman, Musk’s new leadership ensured that content moderation would occur through “a panel of one man, that being Elon Musk.” An article published last October highlighted how Twitter’s leadership shift still left many things unanswered as Musk hopes to instill a “free-speech platform” that may enable alt-right and conspiracy theorists to roam on the platform. Concerns over how the platform would stop harmful misinformation, threats of violence and hate speech remain.

Forman has received death threats through direct messaging and replies on Twitter — and even through email. Messages like those are inappropriate, he said, and should be minimized or completely eliminated, calling himself “not a free speech absolutist.”

Forman emphasized the importance of content moderation policy and standards being created by “groups of individuals” who could then implement standards and practices to keep the forum moderated in a way that “made it safe for everybody.” 

Forman stressed the importance of maintaining vigilance and caution on the platform, as numerous individuals are attempting to weaponize the thoughts and ideas shared on the platform. He suggested users of the platform create and consume content on the platform with awareness and mindfulness. 

Random suspensions, career consequences

Amir Haji-Akbari, assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering, uses Twitter to communicate with the science community and — more recently — to post about the human rights protests in Iran. But on Jan. 14, he received notice that his account was permanently suspended. 

Haji-Akbari, known as @theIranianAlien, has 170 followers and follows 286 people. Twitter had suspended his account for “misuse of Twitter product features,” listing off potential actions typical of bots, with the language “particularly using automation” used.

Haji-Akbari appealed the suspension, and was finally unsuspended on Jan. 16. Ten minutes later, Twitter suspended his account again. He filed another appeal, and after a couple days, they locked his account. 

He was able to regain access to his account on Jan. 18, but only after verifying his identity.

“I found it a bit disconcerting that your account could basically get suspended for no good reason, completely abruptly,” Haji-Akbari said.

Haji-Akbari felt that the suspension “deprived” him of his ability to communicate with colleagues. Twitter has become a dominant platform for the science community, where scientists post about their latest research, create educational content to teach the public about their research and write about issues affecting scientists. 

If Twitter could suspend him, Haji-Akbari worried what would happen to academics who worked on “more sensitive subjects,” he said, particularly those involved in activism at odds with Musk’s ideology. 

Initially Haji-Akbari thought he was suspended because of his tweets about protests happening in Iran, but he learned from the process of appealing that Twitter had concluded he was a bot.

“It was this suspicion that my handle was not real, and I’m doing something shady,” Haji-Akbari said. “And somehow that [tool] for whatever reason, thought that I’m running a bot from my Twitter handle. That’s probably why it got suspended again after it was unsuspended.”

Haji-Akbari suspects that Twitter has an automated tool for detecting bots, which is something he noted that “the new management of Twitter is obsessed with.” Haji-Akbari attributed his reasoning behind his suspensions to changes in Twitter in recent months, including new management. 

To Haji-Akbari, people should be worried because the frequency of these abrupt suspensions has increased “significantly” in recent months, and will likely continue to. Twitter might not fail for everybody at the same time, but it could start failing randomly, he said — the trouble comes when it fails at “important times” in people’s career.

“Even if [a scientist’s] account gets suspended for a week or two weeks and comes back, that could have an irreparable cost to them in terms of what they want to achieve in their career,” Haji-Akbari said. “And I think we as a scientific community need to be aware of that.”

Haji-Akbari noted that when he publishes a paper, his colleague can use Twitter to leave comments, ask questions or give suggestions as to future directions of the research. Having organized an annual meeting for the American Institute of Chemical Engineering, he said faculty candidates usually have to advertise their latest publications and their coming talks — tweeting is part of their career success. 

An exodus of scientists from Twitter

Akiko Iwasaki, Sterling professor of immunobiology and professor of dermatology, molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and epidemiology, has been on Twitter as @VirusesImmunity since 2017. She has over 200,000 followers and mainly tweets about recent findings in science, usually about COVID-19 — particularly long COVID-19 — and challenges faced by women in science. 

Since Musk took over Twitter, Iwasaki has noticed an increase in potential censorship, especially against journalists. She called this trend “worrisome” and has seen many of her immunology colleagues leave Twitter because of it. Some colleagues left for reasons related to new management and fear of being “taken over” by “certain groups of people.”

As Iwasaki watched the “exodus” from Twitter happen, she wondered if the situation would get “so terrible,” that she would have to leave. Iwasaki recalled seeing scientists who tweet pro-vaccine tweets, such as physician-scientist Peter Hotez, get attacked by anti-vaxxers, for “simply trying to communicate the benefits of vaccines.”

“I do worry, we have already lost some people, and I contemplated leaving Twitter as well,” Iwasaki said. “But for me, Twitter is really important to engage with patients and people who are interested in science and not necessarily my colleagues.”

Iwasaki wants her platform to be as wide as possible, beyond the scientists she would normally interact with. Twitter allows her to communicate directly with long COVID-19 patients, and through this, learn something “every day” from what patients have to say. This exchange is “difficult” to create on other platforms, she observed.

The pandemic increased her Twitter following as people were interested in her updates on COVID-19, even outside of “own circle of scientists.” Reporters have even contacted Iwasaki to ask questions, which further expands her reach, she said, enabling traditional media to cover her thoughts on COVID-19, even beyond social media. 

Her research on long COVID-19 had actually been inspired by an interview with science reporter Ed Yong early on in the pandemic, who would not have reached out to her if he had not seen her on Twitter, Iwasaki revealed. 

“This is really a platform where hundreds of thousands of people are watching what I say and are making decisions for their health,” Iwasaki said. “So it’s very important that I remain [on Twitter] to be able to do that.”

A future beyond Twitter?

Iwasaki said that Twitter “could be better,” but considered the best solution to be staying on the current platform, and trying to improve it. She has not yet seen a platform that could replace Twitter.

“It’s very difficult to replicate what Twitter is,” Iwasaki said. “I’ve thought of moving to other platforms many times but it will take time to rebuild the followers and networks that are already existing on Twitter.” 

If the scientific community ever moved off Twitter, Haji-Akbari would want the new platform to be a non-profit and limited to scientists. To him, the exclusivity would allow for dialogue among fellow scientists to occur without people who “use pseudoscience,” or question evolution or vaccines, he explained. 

In Haji-Akbari’s model, members outside the community could view the content, but not necessarily be able to post. For scientists, content moderation occurs through “peer pressure,” according to Haji-Akbari, keeping one another in check to ensure everything stated is rigorous and scientifically defensible.

If Twitter “gets too bad,” Forman said he has already established a presence on Post and Mastodon, two alternative platforms to Twitter. But Forman expects Twitter to continue serving as the primary platform for posting his content.

“It may go through a bad period of time, I don’t blame people for abandoning it at all,” Forman said. “But I expect that Twitter will eventually come back to being what it was and hopefully function well.”

Twitter was founded in 2006.

Kayla Yup covers Science & Social Justice and the Yale New Haven Health System for the SciTech desk. For the Arts desk, she covers anything from galleries to music. She is majoring in Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology and History of Science, Medicine & Public Health as a Global Health Scholar.
Abel Geleta covers Yale New Haven Health (YNHH) for the Science and Technology desk at the News. Previously, he covered stories and topics at the intersection of Science and Social Justice. Originally from Ethiopia, Abel has lived in northern Virginia for the past 12 years. He is currently a junior in Berkeley college studying History of Science, Medicine and Public Health as a scholar in the Global Health Studies Program