Citing increasingly toxic climate, Michelle Wu turns away from Twitter

Boston mayor who relished online engagement as 'wutrain' says it’s become too divisive 

MICHELLE WU IS hitting the brakes on the wutrain.

Wu, who has made regular Twitter engagement on her @wutrain account a hallmark of her millennial mayoralty and political brand, said the platform has become an increasingly difficult place to share information and have civil dialogue over important issues. 

“I’ve experienced this platform becoming more and more toxic over the last year, and it’s a direction that makes it a less productive use of my personal time to reach constituents about local issues,” Boston’s first-term mayor said in an interview on Wednesday. 

Wu was an avid tweeter, and had amassed more than 150,000 followers on her personal @wutrain Twitter account. The platform became a valuable tool in her political rise, a place where she not only put out policy statements and took stands on issues, but was able to humanize herself with more whimsical and affecting tweets about life as a young parent raising two sons in the city.

https://twitter.com/wutrain/status/1588649543159410688

Wu hasn’t initiated any tweets from her @wutrain account in nearly a month (she has retweeted two messages), and said she plans to stay off it for now.

Wu said City Hall’s digital communications staff is continuing to send out messages about city business on her official mayoral Twitter account, @Mayor Wu, which she launched after her November 2021 election. 

Some well-known national figures, as well as some local regulars in the Massachusetts politics twitterverse, have said they’re abandoning Twitter following its recent acquisition by Elon Musk. Some cited Musk’s welcoming back of prominent purveyors of misinformation like Donald Trump, who had been tossed off the platform because of his role inciting the January 6 insurrection, while others, including Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy, have pointed to Musk’s own behavior

Wu steered clear of Musk’s takeover, saying her decision reflects a broader unease with the direction Twitter was taking even before his purchase. 

“There’s been a crowding out of many voices and forms of debate, with conspiracy theories or many accounts, most often anonymous, posting in bad faith about conspiracy theories or spreading misinformation,” she said. 

Wu was the target of particularly harsh attacks – online and in person – over the COVID vaccine mandate she imposed on city workers. A small band of protesters demonstrated noisily outside her Roslindale home for weeks, and she was regularly attacked on Twitter over the policy. But Wu said it was not any one issue that drove her decision to step back from the platform. 

“It’s less about a particular topic or issue and more the general difficulty to cut through so much misinformation and bad-faith attempts to distract and harass,” she said. 

She also insisted that she had no problem with criticism and vigorous debate, and is not turning away from that kind of engagement. “I think it’s a really important goal that city government and our elected representatives should be looking to create those spaces for disagreement and feedback and accountability,” she said. “There’s a distinction between bad faith attempts to harass and robust, healthy debate.”

For a time, Wu didn’t just put up with critics and trolls as something that comes with the online territory, she engaged with them. That sometimes meant calling out the shaky logic of their barbs, more than a few of which seemed to come with a racist edge. 

In August, when well-known writer and climate activist Bill McKibben tweeted out approvingly a story on Wu’s plan to seek a moratorium on fossil fuel hookups in new buildings in Boston, an anonymous user, who telegraphed his right-wing leanings with his Twitter name, BuckJoeFiden, lit into the mayor. 

“@MayorWu = Communist. Go back to where you belong,” he tweeted. 

“Where do I belong?” Wu replied, adding an upside down smiling emoji. 

Last March, Wu moved a press conference announcing controversial new policies on outdoor dining in the North End into a closed City Hall room, drawing the wrath of some restaurant owners who complained about being shut out of the briefing. 

“Let’s be clear,” Wu tweeted in response. “We will not normalize harassment as acceptable behavior. When members of this group have taken part in the yelling outside my house, bullied City staff & fellow restaurant owners—there is no right to get inside & shout down a press conference too.” 

In an appearance the following week on CommonWealth’s “Codcast,Wu talked about her decision to take to social media to push back against attacks, suggesting she thought it was important for the city’s first woman leader and first mayor of color not to be cowed by critics. 

“I know there are many people who would say, you know, this is unbecoming, and the mayor should be above any sort of rancor and just not elevate the back and forth or don’t get into it,” she said in the April conversation. “I am very aware, though, that there are many people watching what’s happening, young people who are thinking about whether or not public service is for them, women and women of color in leadership positions, who face similar hate and toxicity.” 

Eight months later, however, Wu concluded all the venom wasn’t worth it. 

“I miss the chance on this platform to connect with people honestly and directly and in a way that felt healthy for everyone in the conversation,” she said. “But what I have seen directly is a crowding out of healthy civic engagement by just more and more bad-faith accounts.” 

“She really engaged, she really got how to use Twitter,” said Kennedy, the Northeastern journalism professor. “And it’s too bad she feels she shouldn’t be on there right now, but I don’t blame her a bit.”

Wu is maintaining her Instagram account along with the official City Hall Twitter account. She also created an account on Mastodon, a Twitter alternative that some have switched to, but it has yet to take off and she’s only posted a handful of messages there. “I’m waiting to see if there’s a critical mass that migrates over there,” Wu said. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Wu hasn’t deleted the wutrain account, either, and didn’t close the door to reengaging on it at some point. “I’m open to seeing how things shift,” she said of the evolving state of social media and platforms like Twitter. “I think we’re in a moment of volatility in our national political system and that has lots of ripple effects across all parts of our daily life.”