Twitter’s latest round of bad news recalls a meeting Free Press and other racial-justice and digital-rights groups held in early November, at the beginning of Elon Musk’s disastrous run as the platform’s CEO.
We sat down with the new-media boss to gauge his commitment to community standards, election integrity and content moderation. We urged Musk to retain and actually enforce existing content-moderation rules if he wanted advertisers to continue to spend money on Twitter — and not see their content appear alongside lies, bigotry and other extremist content.
He initially seemed to agree with us, but quickly reversed course, laying off many of those on the company’s trust and safety team in charge of this important work. Musk then granted a “general amnesty” to legions of neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine trolls, reinstating thousands of previously banned accounts. He also gutted long-standing content-moderation rules and stopped enforcing Twitter’s ban on COVID-19 misinformation.
His purchase saddled the company with $13 billion in loans, and his refusal to seriously consider content moderation and brand safety ensured that Musk wouldn't have the revenue he needed to pay off these debts.
Those who loaned Musk the money were banking on the “small chance that Elon is some sort of genius and can turn around an operational and financial situation that looks increasingly doomed,” financial writer William Cohan skeptically wrote at the time. Musk’s erratic behavior since then has dashed those hopes.
Twitter’s toxic turn caused well over half of the company’s advertisers to leave by January of this year. And few seem intent on returning. A mistake-riddled attempt to recoup this lost revenue by selling Twitter Blue subscriptions hasn’t even won over one percent of the platform's users, Bloomberg noted on Tuesday, adding that the company was now worth only a fraction of the $44-billion sum Musk paid for it.
In other words: Musk was wrong. We were right.
Amplifying hate, alienating advertisers
New research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) underscores this point: Allowing Twitter to become a hate-posting hellscape has imperiled any of the company’s remaining business prospects.
According to a CCDH sampling, Twitter has failed to remove 99 percent of hate speech posted by Twitter Blue users. Instead Musk has enabled algorithms that will amplify these and other paid accounts. To make matters worse, Musk's own politics have become increasingly reactionary and strident, so much so that he has started to sound like many of the most vitriolic hate trolls featured in CCDH’s research.
Charlie Warzel of The Atlantic detailed Musk’s descent into the muck:
“[His] own rhetoric has moved from trolling to dog whistling to outright conspiracy peddling, and it has intensified in recent months, culminating in his recent anti-Semitic remarks about George Soros. A stroll through Musk’s replies on the site reveals the extent to which one of the richest men in the world spends his time replying to far-right influencers and nodding in approval to their racist memes.”
Musk rushed online to defend racist comic-strip author Scott Adams after he characterized Blacks in the United States as a “hate group.” He's boosted “anti-woke” influencers and adopted many of their anti-trans and homophobic rhetoric, and recently amplified Black-on-white crime data in a way that is misleading and taken out of context.
When right-wing site Parler shut down in April, its bosses noted that their plans to create a Twitter clone for right-wing users were misguided, and the result was not viable as a business.
“If Musk weren’t too preoccupied [with] lapping up approval from trolls, reactionaries, and Dogecoin enthusiasts — a few of the constituencies left on his site that still seem to adore him — the Parler statement [w]ould worry him,” Warzel wrote.
The appointment of a new CEO with marketing expertise will likely do little to save Twitter. As my colleague Jessica J. González told CNN: “Musk is setting future CEO Linda Yaccarino up to fail — as long as he continues to make the platform toxic, it will be impossible to lure back advertisers and users.”
A CEO reshuffle won't be enough — unless the new boss has the authority to reverse Musk’s many policy decisions and reinvest in content moderation and enforcement. So far, Musk hasn’t given any indication that he’ll allow someone else to fix his long string of screw-ups.
“Musk is ignoring a fundamental truth: to grow healthy and profitable online communities, you need effective content moderation,” I wrote in February. “If Twitter becomes insolvent— which seems more likely by the day — it’s because Musk lacks this basic business sense about social media.”
His decision to ignore this advice offered during his first week on the job set Twitter on a path to ruin that today seems inevitable.