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Friday, October 27, 2023

The Consequences of Elon Musk’s Ownership of X

The Consequences of Elon Musk’s Ownership of X

When Elon Musk bought Twitter a year ago, he said he wanted to create what he called a “common digital town square.”

“That said,” he wrote, “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape.”

A year later, according to study after study, Mr. Musk’s platform has become exactly that.

“Now rebranded as X, the site has experienced a surge in racist, antisemitic and other hateful speech. Under Mr. Musk’s watch, millions of people have been exposed to misinformation about climate change. Foreign governments and operatives — from Russia to China to Hamas — have spread divisive propaganda with little or no interference.

Mr. Musk and his team have repeatedly asserted that such concerns are overblown, sometimes pushing back aggressively against people who voice them. Yet dozens of studies from multiple organizations have shown otherwise, demonstrating on issue after issue a similar trend: an increase in harmful content on X during Mr. Musk’s tenure.

The war between Israel and Hamas — the sort of major news event that once made Twitter an essential source of information and debate — has drowned all social media platforms in false and misleading information, but for Mr. Musk’s platform in particular the war has been seen as a watershed. The conflict has captured in full how much the platform has descended into the kind of site that Mr. Musk had promised advertisers he wanted to avoid on the day he officially took over.

“With disinformation about the Israel-Hamas conflict flourishing so dramatically on X, it feels that it crossed a line for a lot of people where they can see — beyond just the branding change — that the old Twitter is truly gone,” Tim Chambers of Dewey Square Group, a public affairs company that tracks social media, said in an interview. “And the new X is a shadow of that former self.”

Reports on X’s role during the Israel-Hamas war

“An epicenter for content praising the attacks.”

The growing sense of chaos on the platform has already hurt Mr. Musk’s investment. While it remains one of the most popular social media services, people visited the website nearly 5.9 billion times in September, down 14 percent from the same month last year, according to the data analysis firm Similarweb.

Advertisers have also fled, leading to a sizable slump in sales. Mr. Musk noted this summer that ad revenue had fallen 50 percent. He blamed the Anti-Defamation League, one of several advocacy groups that have cataloged the rise of hateful speech on X, for “trying to kill this platform.”

Most of the problems, however, stem from changes that Mr. Musk instituted – some intentionally, some not. Studies about the state of X have been conducted over the past year by researchers and analysts at universities, think tanks and advocacy organizations concerned with the spread of hate speech and other harmful content.

Research conducted in part by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue concluded that anti-Semitic tweets in English more than doubled after Mr. Musk’s takeover. A report from the European Commission found that engagement with pro-Kremlin accounts grew 36 percent on the platform in the first half of this year after Mr. Musk lifted mitigation measures.

Mr. Musk disbanded an advisory council focused on trust and safety issues and laid off scores of employees who addressed them. For a monthly fee, he offered users a blue checkmark, a label that once conveyed that Twitter had verified the identity of the user behind an account. He then used algorithms to promote accounts of uncertain provenance in users’ feeds. He removed labels that identified government and state media accounts for countries like Russia and China that censor independent media.

“The entire year’s worth of changes to X were fully stress tested during the global news breaking last week,” Mr. Chambers said, referring to the conflict in Israel. “And in the eyes of many, myself included, it failed utterly.”

The company did not respond to a request for comment beyond a stock response it regularly uses to press inquiries: “Busy now, please check back later.”

X trails only Facebook’s 16.3 billion monthly visits and Instagram’s 6.4 billion visits, according to Similarweb. TikTok, which is rising in popularity among certain demographic groups, has roughly two billion visits each month. Despite voluble threats by disgruntled users to move to alternative platforms – Mastadon, BlueSky or Meta’s new rival to Mr. Musk’s, Threads – none of them have yet reached the critical mass to replicate the public exposure that X offers.

Keeping X at the center of public debate is exactly Mr. Musk’s goal, which he describes at times with a messianic zeal. The day after Hamas attacked Israel, Mr. Musk urged his followers to follow “the war in real time.”

He then cited two accounts that are notorious for spreading disinformation, including a false post in the spring that an explosion had occurred outside the Pentagon. Faced with a flurry of criticism, Mr. Musk deleted the post and later sounded chastened.

He urged his followers on X to “stay as close to the truth as possible, even for stuff you don’t like. This platform aspires to maximize signal/noise of the human collective.”

Reports linking Mr. Musk’s acquisition to hateful content

“A sustained rise in hateful speech.”

Mr. Musk, the prominent, outspoken executive behind Tesla and Space X, had been an avid Twitter user for years before taking it over, promoting his ventures and himself, at times with crude, offensive comments. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he sharply criticized lockdowns and other measures to slow the virus’s spread and began to warn of a “woke” culture that silenced dissent.

Among his first acts as the site’s owner was to reverse the bans on thousands of accounts, including those of users who had promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and spread disinformation about Covid and the 2020 presidential election.

The impact was instantaneous. Researchers at Tufts, Rutgers and Montclair State universities documented spikes in the use of racial and ethnic slurs soon after Mr. Musk’s acquisition. One research institute found that a campaign on 4chan, a notorious bulletin board, encouraged the use of a particular slur within hours of his arrival, in what seemed to be a coordinated test of the new owner’s tolerance for offensive speech..

The prevalence of such offensive language has, according to numerous studies, continued unabated. “The Musk acquisition saw a sustained rise in hateful speech on the platform,” an article in The Misinformation Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Harvard Kennedy School, said in August.

Even worse, the article argued, Mr. Musk’s changes appear to be boosting the engagements of the most contentious users.

A month into Mr. Musk’s ownership, the platform stopped enforcing its policy against Covid-19 misinformation. The liberal watchdog group Media Matterslater identified 250 accounts with high engagement on Covid-related tweets. Nine of the top 10 accounts were known anti-vaccine proponents, several of whom promoted unproven and potentially harmful treatments and attacked top public health officials.

Mr. Musk’s first summer as X’s boss also coincided with a rash of climate-related disasters around the world, including deadly heat waves, rampaging wildfires, torrential rains and intense flooding. Last month, a scorecardevaluating social media companies on their defenses against climate-related falsehoods awarded X a single point out of a possible 21 (Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, was given eight points).

How the discussion over climate change changed under Mr. Musk

“Climate denial and hate speech have spiked.”

The platform was “lacking clear policies that address climate misinformation, having no substantive public transparency mechanisms, and offering no evidence of effective policy enforcement,” said the accompanying report from Climate Action Against Disinformation, an international coalition of more than 50 environmental advocacy groups.

This year, hundreds of researchers pushed back against a decision by X to end free access to software that would allow them collect and analyze data about the site.

Perhaps the most impactful change under Mr. Musk has been the evolution of his subscription plans. The blue checkmark that once conveyed veracity and denoted verified accounts, often those of government agencies, companies and prominent users, was now available to any account for $8 a month.

Reports on X bolstering foreign disinformation

“An increase of nearly 70% in Islamic State accounts.”

In April, Mr. Musk began removing the blue badges from verified accounts. New ones impersonating public officials, government agencies and celebrities proliferated, causing confusion about which were real. The platform went on to reward those who paid for their blue labels by amplifying their posts over those without the badge.

Reset, a nonprofit research organization, discovered that dozens of anonymous accounts linked to the Kremlin received the checkmark, pushing Russian narratives on the war in Ukraine. This spring, the platform also removed the labels that identified official state media of countries like Russia, China and Iran. In the 90 days after the change, engagement with posts from the English-language accounts of those outlets soared 70 percent, NewsGuard, a company that tracks online misinformation, reported in September.

Mr. Musk has now run afoul of the European Union’s newly enacted Digital Services Act, a law that requires social media platforms to restrict misinformation and other violative content within the union’s 27 nations.

report commissioned by the union’s executive body warned in August that Mr. Musk’s dismantling of guardrails on the platform had resulted in a 36 percent increase in engagement with Kremlin-linked accounts from January through May, mostly pushing Russia’s justifications for its illegal invasion of Ukraine last year.

After war erupted between Israel and Hamas, Thierry Breton, a European Commissioner who oversees the law’s implementation, warned Mr. Musk in a letter that was posted on X, saying the company needed to address “violent and terrorist content that appears to circulate on your platform.”

Reset, the research organization, reported recently that it had documented 166 posts that its researchers considered antisemitic. Many appeared to violate laws in several European countries, including calls for violence against Jews and denying the historical facts of the Holocaust. They accumulated at least 23 million views and 480,000 engagements.

Mr. Musk sounded incredulous, even as the company scrambled to delete accounts linked to Hamas and other terrorist groups. He responded two days later to an account identified by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the most prominent purveyors of disinformation. The account, which had been removed from Twitter but was restored last December after Mr. Musk took over, had claimed that the European Union was trying to police the truth.

“They still haven’t provided any examples of disinformation,” Mr. Musk replied.“

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