Twitter: How Elon Musk changed X in one year

One year after Elon Musk bought Twitter, critics say the newly rebranded microblogging platform now known as X is flooded with hate speech and misinformation

Twitter: Elon Musk rebrands platform to 'X' (photo: DW)
Twitter: Elon Musk rebrands platform to 'X' (photo: DW)
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DW

On October 27, 2022, the world's richest man, Elon Musk, officially took ownership of Twitter Inc., tweeting "The bird is freed" before firing top executives, embarking on a series of controversial layoffs (about half of its 7,500 staff) and renaming one of the world's best-known brands 'X'.

Launched in Silicon Valley in 2006, Twitter started out as a microblogging platform that allowed users to share 140-character posts or "tweets." By December 2022, Twitter had over 368 million active users worldwide, according to data from eMarketer/Insider Intelligence, and was credited with facilitating social protest movements from the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter to #MeToo

Twitter is by no means the biggest social media platform in terms of the number of active users — it trails Meta's Facebook and Instagram and others by far — but it has long punched above its weight in terms of influence. Political leaders, companies, news media organizations, journalists and celebrities have all used the platform to communicate and brand-build among a largely media-savvy global community.

Before closing his $44 billion (€41.5 billion) deal to buy Twitter, Musk proclaimed the platform served as "the de facto public town square" and questioned its commitment to freedom of speech. "Failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?" Musk asked his tens of millions of followers.

Extremists, hate speech and lawsuits

Despite promising not to turn Twitter into a "free-for-all hellscape," Musk's answer was to fire large numbers of content moderators, dissolve its trust and safety council and reinstate the accounts of right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists, including white nationalist Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and Andrew Anglin, the founder of the white supremacist website The Daily Stormer. Its press department was closed in November 2022 and now answers all press inquiries with a poop emoji.

In the weeks following the takeover, a study by researchers at Tufts University in the US found that "post-Musk takeover, the quality of the conversation has decayed, with more extremists and purveyors of hateful content testing the boundaries of what Twitter might allow." Now, one year on, critics say the so-called "public town square" has become flooded with hate speech and misinformation.

"The researcher at the Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim (ZEW ) is the co-author of a study examining the impact of legislation to combat hate speech on Twitter. All this is important, Andres says, because "what we find on social media translates into real-world outcomes."

The Center for Countering Digital Hate says hate and discrimination have "skyrocketed" on the platform under Musk and now campaigns for big brands to stop advertising on the site. In response, Musk filed a lawsuit accusing the CCDH of damaging its relationship with advertisers. He's also threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League, a US-based civil rights group, saying the ADL was trying to "kill" the social media platform by "falsely accusing it and me of being antisemitic."

By May 2023, market analysts at Fidelity, an asset management fund that owns a stake in X Holdings Corp., found that Twitter had lost around a third of its purchase value since Musk's takeover. In July, Musk freely admitted the company had lost almost of its advertising revenue since he took the helm and marketing consultancy.

Is Twitter worse than other platforms?

Another big change under Musk has been the introduction of fees for the famous "blue checks" used to verify users' identities. Suddenly the blue check was available to anyone willing to pay for it, and those who refused had their verification removed.

Sacha Altay is an experimental psychologist working on misinformation and (mis)trust at the University of Zurich. He says that while it's clear that the spread of hate speech and misinformation has increased on Twitter, there are very few studies comparing the phenomenon across different platforms.

"[Musk] did a lot of things that of course did not improve the quality of the discussion, but it's difficult to tell whether it is really worse than on other platforms," Altay told DW. "Is it worse than on TikTok? Maybe. But I don't think we have really good data to be able to speak to that."

On the specific issue of misinformation, Altay says it has been a problem on Twitter since the very beginning, and that it's mainly spread not by bots, but by people with real-world power and influence. "Before with the blue check it was already bad, now it's just worse. A lot of misinformation already came from 'blue-check people' like politicians," Altay says.

In response to the introduction of the Digital Services Act (DSA) in the EU, which sets forth rules for preventing the spread of harmful content, banning or limiting certain user-targeting practices, and sharing some internal data with regulators, rumors circulated that Musk was considering removing the service from Europe.

In September Musk took on the German government. He shared a call to vote for the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) suggesting that Europe is being overrun by refugees and the German government is to blame, as it finances the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. "Is the German public is aware of this?" Musk tweeted. To this the official account of the German Foreign Office responded with "Yes, it's called saving lives."

Time to leave the 'public town square'?

As the "public town square" becomes ever more flooded with hate speech and misinformation, the question arises of whether it's time to pack up and leave — and if it is, then where to?

Some of Germany's more high-profile politicians — such as Lower Saxony's Premier Stephan Weil, or the center-left Social Democrats' co-chair Saskia Esken — wiped their private accounts. But most German politicians and media outlets continue to have a presence on the platform.

One exception is the US non-profit NPR. After X labeled it as "US state-affiliated media" in April 2023, it promptly the media organization with 8.7 million followers left Twitter. Six months later, Harvard's Nieman Foundation reported on a memo circulated to NPR staff saying traffic had dropped by just a single percentage point as a result of leaving the platform.

In a recent Medium blog post, influential Canadian-British blogger, journalist and author Cory Doctorow wrote: "The problem with Twitter isn't that this important service is run by the wrong mercurial, mediocre billionaire: it's that hundreds of millions of people are at the mercy of any foolish corporate leader."

"I don't think [Twitter's] over, I don't think it will die," says Raphaela Andres. "I think there will be different alternatives coming up like Mastodon, Blue Sky. I don't expect them to become as big as Twitter, I think we won't have one overarching platform anymore. I hope that at some point the people can communicate between those platforms […] and I think that's the direction that we will go."

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Published: 27 Oct 2023, 8:39 AM
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