Illustration by René Lapoutre

The disinformation platform

Goodbye Twitter?

Illustration by René Lapoutre
A year after Elon Musk took over Twitter, the platform has seen an increase in disinformation and name-calling, and previously banned people have had their accounts restored. Tweeting UG academics are wondering if they should stay. ‘When people started leaving X en masse, I did think to myself that it was time to go.’
24 October om 13:20 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 25 October 2023
om 10:31 uur.
October 24 at 13:20 PM.
Last modified on October 25, 2023
at 10:31 AM.
Avatar photo

Door Rob van der Wal

24 October om 13:20 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 25 October 2023
om 10:31 uur.
Avatar photo

By Rob van der Wal

October 24 at 13:20 PM.
Last modified on October 25, 2023
at 10:31 AM.
Avatar photo

Rob van der Wal

‘Where do you keep finding these fascists creeps straight out of Hugo’s wet dreams?’, @HappyKaffer tweeted on October 26, 2021 in response to an item on Covid policies in the television programme Nieuwsuur. 

The fascist creep he’s referring to was Jochen Mierau, professor of economics of public health and scientific director at Lifelines. This wasn’t the first time he’d been called names on Twitter. Most of the time, he thinks it’s funny. ‘No matter what I tweet, there will always be people who hate what I say. My wife has read the funniest ones out to me.’

Statistics professor Casper Albers has also had his share of criticism on Twitter, especially during the pandemic. ‘Because of my columns and my work on Covid statistics, I was called things like murderer, bastard, and other names on a weekly basis’, he says.

Twitter has long been a place where people feel comfortable calling others names and spreading disinformation. But when Elon Musk took over the platform in October last year, with the intention of turning it into a ‘bastion of free speech’, moderation has become next to non-existent and people who had previously been banned were allowed to return. Because of this, inflammatory tweets are rampant.

Many UG academics used to consider Twitter, which today is called X, a great platform for sharing knowledge. But many of their followers have since moved on to alternatives like Mastodon or Bluesky. Will the UG academics follow, or is the social media platform too difficult to replace?


Professor of cognitive neuropsychiatry Marie-José van Tol recently created accounts on both Mastodon and Bluesky. ‘To be honest, they’re a little boring’, she says. ‘Mastodon is quite business-like, whereas my Twitter bubble was this great mix of jokes and mischief. I followed a lot of people from different areas at the UG as well, such as Casper Albers, Dirk-Jan Scheffers, and former spokesperson Jorien Bakker. I always had great interactions with them.’

Maston is business-like, whereas my Twitter was a mix of jokes and mischief

Marie-José van Tol

Van Tol has never truly been targeted by trolls or people calling her names. ‘Some people are stuck in this nasty bubble, but not me. I don’t work in a controversial field, like climate science.’

But she’d still like to try out other social media. ‘When people started leaving X en masse, I did think to myself that it was time to go. I’m not a big Elon Musk fan and I think there should be an alternative for when certain people are allowed back on X.’

Van Tol hasn’t decided on a new platform yet. ‘I’m still learning about the codes of conduct and styles on other platforms. I only made a single post on Bluesky and no one’s liked it yet. That’s something I’ll have to work on.’

Reach media outlets

Mierau won’t leave X just yet. ‘I think it’s better to set an example by providing reliable information in a positive way’, he says.

He mainly sees the platform as a way to easily reach various media outlets. This was especially helpful during the Covid pandemic. During the first Covid summer, there was no strategy on what to do in case of a second, local wave of infections’, he says. ‘So I tweeted that we needed one.’

Dagblad van het Noorden quickly picked up his post, says Mierau. ‘Next thing I knew, the Telegraaf and NOS were on the phone.’

Back then, the media closely monitored Twitter, he thinks. ‘Information was spreading just as fast as the virus, and television programmes needed content.’ That urgency has since become a thing of the past. ‘These days, the news only reports about healthcare once or twice a month. Either the platform has changed, or times have. I’m not sure which one.’


Albers also owes a lot to Twitter. Partly because of his tweets, the Volkskrant asked him to write a monthly column for them. Yet he still left the platform this past August. ‘Even before Elon Musk took over, Twitter was a weird place’, he says. ‘There were a lot of people going on these right-wing tirades. They used to do something about it, but now that Musk has started paying people for posting a lot, right-wing trolling has become a way to make money.’

Right-wing trolling has become a way to make money

Casper Albers

Engaging these people is exhausting, says Albers. ‘Some people have decided to only tweet and never look at the replies. Only send, and don’t receive. That’s an option. But it’s not really my thing.’

Mastodon and Bluesky are genuinely good Twitter alternatives, he says. ‘The great thing about Mastodon is that it’s open source, not owned by some weird billionaire’, he says. ‘There’s a lot less disinformation and name-calling. In other words: all the annoying people are still on Twitter.’

While Mastodon is mainly populated by scientists, according to Albers, Bluesky represents the general population. Albers doesn’t think it’s an issue that the new platforms have a much lower number of active numbers than X. Several of his Twitter followers were inactive. ‘Besides, Bluesky is growing fast’, he says. ‘I only made an account after the summer holidays, and I already have 750 followers.’

Monitor opinions

Most of the UG’s communication channels will stay on X for now. ‘It’s an important platform for us because not only does it allow us to reach many people at once, but it’s also a great way to monitor how people feel about our university’, says social media manager Sophie Dannenburg-Brouwes, who manages the general UG account. 

The UG will collaborate with social media teams at other universities to create a policy for how to use X as well as TikTok, but she can’t say anything substantial about this yet.

We expect Twitter to increasingly reduce the visibility of unpaid content

Babette Knauer

The Faculty of Science and Engineering has just installed a new science communication team that is still figuring out which channels it wants to use. ‘We’re not clear yet what the best alternative for X is.’

The Faculty of Economics and Business is still taking stock of any and all researchers who want to leave X in favour of other platforms, says communications manager Mirjam Spaans. ‘We didn’t have a proper overview of that.’

Publicly accessible

The University Library (UB), though, has made its choice: it left X on October 20. ‘We feel it’s important that academic publications remain publicly accessible, and so should our content’, says communications team leader Babette Knauer. ‘We expect the Twitter algorithm to increasingly reduce the visibility of unpaid content like ours. So we’ve decided to practise what we preach. We also felt that we reached the maximum number of followers on Twitter.’

Mastodon has no limit on unpaid content. The UB started an account there a year ago. ‘Our Mastodon posts have regularly led to more interaction than our Twitter posts.’

The UG’s communication department is also on Mastodon, using the shared server for Dutch universities. But even though their first post, from March 29, enthusiastically promises they’ll ‘regularly post about our research, education, and other news’, they’ve been fairly quiet since: apart from a second post on March 29, the only other post dates back to April 3. According to Dannenburg-Douwes, it’s because ‘it’s an extra platform that we have to create content for. We don’t have the manpower for that right now.’