April 15, 2024


It's the Technology

We’re witnessing the brain death of Twitter

On Monday, December 12, Twitter dissolved its Trust and Safety Council, a wide-ranging group of global civil rights advocates, academics, and experts who have advised the company since 2016. Meanwhile, Musk has welcomed back previously banned high-profile extremists like the white nationalist Patrick Casey. According to data compiled by researcher Travis Brown, others reinstated include Meninist, a “men’s rights” account with more than a million followers; Peter McCullough, a cardiologist who gained a large audience for advocating discredited covid-19 treatments and arguing against receiving the vaccine; and Tim Gionet, a far-right media personality who livestreamed his participation in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

Musk’s enthusiasm for eliminating jobs, cutting costs, and undoing Twitter’s safety infrastructure has caused advertisers to leave in droves. At one point, the company reportedly lost the business of half its top 100 advertising clients, and it has missed weekly US ad revenue expectations by as much as 80%. Musk’s behavior now poses difficult questions for the brands that remain. The company has stopped enforcing its policy on covid-19 misinformation.

And as people who like Musk’s vision for Twitter return to posting, others are finding it tougher to justify their presence on the site, declaring hiatuses or announcing their migration elsewhere. According to one estimate, Twitter may have lost a million users in just a few days after Musk took over. Others are giving up on tweeting even if they haven’t deleted their accounts yet. Some of these are high profile: Elton John quit Twitter on December 9, citing the site’s policy changes on misinformation.

MIT Technology Review ran an analysis in Hoaxy, a tool created by Indiana University to show how information spreads on Twitter by looking at both keyword frequency and interactions between individual accounts. The results hint at Musk’s new role in this network: as effectively a hall monitor for the far right.

The tool plots interactions visually, showing the connections between individual Twitter accounts on a specific keyword or hashtag and indicating whether that account is the one amplifying the search term to others or being mentioned by accounts that are doing so. Accounts that are more actively involved in conversations appear as nodes.

Musk was a key “node” of activity around usage of the “groomer” slur—we looked at both “Groomer” and “OK groomer”— from Friday, December 9, through the afternoon of Sunday, December 11, when we ran the analysis. (We also ran a second query on Wednesday, December 14, which showed similar results.) Musk himself has not tweeted the word—which, according to a report from GLAAD and Media Matters, has dramatically increased in frequency and reach during his tenure. Instead, he has been repeatedly tagged into conversations by others who are using it.

Sometimes these users are apparently seeking attention and amplification from the guy who owns Twitter, and implicitly identifying the slur’s recipients as potential targets for harassment. At other times, Musk is tagged in conversations where the slur is used to attack those who directly disagree with him on Twitter—including Jack Dorsey, the company’s cofounder and former CEO, who tweeted at Musk last week to dispute his claim that the company “refused to take action on child exploitation for years!” Musk regularly interacts with a selection of power users and fans, including conservative meme accounts and far-right personalities like Ian Miles Cheong and Andy Ngo.

Increasingly, Musk isn’t just enabling these conversations—he’s joining in. “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” he tweeted last weekend. When astronaut Scott Kelly publicly pleaded with him not to “mock and promote hate toward already marginalized and at-risk-of-violence members of the #LGBTQ+ community,” Musk replied, ”Forcing your pronouns upon others when they didn’t ask, and implicitly ostracizing those who don’t, is neither good nor kind to anyone.”