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X-Man Elon Musk’s Apocalypse

IFM_ X-Man Elon Musk
After taking over Twitter in October 2022, Elon Musk fired many of the staffers responsible for keeping the micro-blogging platform safe from hate speeches and misinformation

On October 27, 2022, American tech billionaire Elon Musk took over the leadership of the popular micro-blogging platform Twitter. Close to nine months down the line, the social media company got rebranded as ‘X’, as Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg launched Twitter-like Instagram ‘Threads.’

Since Twitter’s leadership overhaul in October 2022, a lot of water has flown, not towards a positive direction though. Take the rebranding exercise for example. While the micro-blogging platform got renamed as ‘X’ and the logo change reflected on the Apple App Store before July 31, media strategist Eric Seufert found out that the social media platform’s ranking on the Apple App Store’s “Top Downloaded” chart from July 27 to August 15 showing what the ‘X’ leadership didn’t anticipate, a downfall in the average app ranking.

“My hypothesis is that, while the terminally online are entirely aware of Twitter’s rebrand to X, most consumers aren’t, and their searches for ‘Twitter’ on platform stores surface ads and genuine search results that are in no way redolent of Twitter,” Seufert explained the phenomenon.

Yes, Twitter’s rebranding has likely caused confusion among its users, with a search for “Twitter” on the App Store now offering up ‘X’ as the first result, and “the bold, black listing is practically unrecognisable as the new evolution of Twitter,” as per the words of MashableIndia.

More embarrassment

As per Elon Musk’s latest statement, X’s block feature is now on the chopping block.

“Block is going to be deleted as a ‘feature’, except for DMs,” Musk stated on ‘X’, as for the tech billionaire, “it makes no sense.”

It is to be noted that the ‘block’ feature is used to protect ‘X’ users from online trolling, harassment and threats. If one goes through the community guidelines framed by Apple and Google app stores, both tech giants have made it mandatory for social networking apps to include a block feature.

Also as per the data collected by third-party researcher Travis Brown, Musk has over 153 million ‘X’ followers but most of these ‘followers’ are fake and the count is being bloated by millions of new, inactive accounts.

Of the 153,209,283 X accounts following Musk, around 42% of his followers, or over 65.3 million users, have zero followers on their own accounts.

The average number of followers for all 153 million accounts following Elon Musk is just around 187, Brown’s data stated further, while only 453,000 Musk followers or 0.3% have subscribed to ‘X Premium.’

Over 72%, or nearly 112 million, of these users, following Musk, have less than 10 followers on their account, the data revealed further.

The Tesla CEO recently claimed that X now has over 540 million “monthly users”. However, the above finding may now present a huge question mark over this statement.

Meanwhile, ‘X’ has fixed the bug that prevented the platform from displaying images tweeted before 2014.

“Over the weekend (August 19 and 20) we had a bug that prevented us from displaying images from before 2014. No images or data were lost. We fixed the bug, and the issue will be fully resolved in the coming days,” the company stated.

‘X’ users complained about their tweets published prior to December 2014 disappearing. Legendary American television personality Ellen DeGeneres stated on the micro-blogging platform that her famous 2014 Academy Awards ceremony selfie with celebrities like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence also went missing from her tweet.

X is suing its way out of accountability?

In July 2023, Bloomberg reported about X losing advertisers, partly due to its lax enforcement against hate speech. The report carried inputs from Callum Hood, the head of research at the non-profit organisation called ‘Centre for Countering Digital Hate’. CCDH has been highlighting instances in which the micro-blogging platform has allowed violent, hateful, or misleading content to remain on its portal.

How did X reacted to this? It informed the media about filing a lawsuit against CCDH and the European Climate Foundation. The charge? ‘Misuse’ of X data leading to the loss of the latter’s advertising revenue. X also alleged that the data used for the CCDH research was obtained using the login credentials from the European Climate Foundation, which had an account with the third-party social listening tool Brandwatch.

“Brandwatch has a licence to use Twitter’s data through its API. X alleges that the CCDH was not authorised to access the Twitter/X data. The suit also accuses the CCDH of scraping Twitter’s platform without proper authorisation, in violation of the company’s terms of service,” stated a WIRED article.

“The Centre for Countering Digital Hate’s research shows that hate and disinformation is spreading like wildfire on the platform under Musk’s ownership, and this lawsuit is a direct attempt to silence those efforts,” remarked CCDH CEO Imran Ahmed.

In December 2022, Elon Musk claimed that the hate speech on Twitter was down by a third, contrary to the claims of many of the former employees that the social media company was not doing enough to counter hate speech and misinformation.

When BBC did its investigation into Musk’s claims of hate speeches going down on X, they found out that banned accounts of polarising characters like Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, and Liz Crokin, one of the biggest propagators of the QAnon conspiracy theory, have been reinstated.

“Other lesser-known Twitter users have taken advantage of the new ownership. One account with a racial slur in its user name was able to get a blue checkmark. Another one was purchased by a neo-Nazi who tweets videos of himself reciting Mein Kampf – Hitler’s autobiography,” the report stated further.

“Our own reporting also provides some clues. The BBC analysed over 1,100 previously banned Twitter accounts that were reinstated under Mr Musk. A third appeared to violate Twitter’s own guidelines. [Violent] content was also a scourge on Twitter for years before Mr Musk acquired the platform,” it remarked.

In July 2023, X reinstated American rapper Kanye West after an almost eight-month ban for a series of offencive tweets, including the one showing a symbol combining a swastika and the Star of David.

X Corp lawyer Alex Spiro rejected CCDH’s allegations of Twitter “failing to act on 99%” of hateful messages from accounts with Twitter Blue subscriptions. He also criticised the organisation’s methodology, writing that “the article is little more than a series of inflammatory, misleading, and unsupported claims based on a cursory review of random tweets.”

Sprio didn’t stop there, as he alleged further that CCDH was supported by funding from “X Corp’s commercial competitors, as well as government entities and their affiliates”, thus accusing the non-profit of attempting to drive away advertisers. But, CCDH refused all these charges.

Experts told that the legal action was the latest move by social media platforms to shrink access to their data by researchers and civil society organisations.

“We’re talking about access not just for researchers or academics, but it could also potentially be extended to advocates and journalists and even policymakers,” says Liz Woolery, digital policy lead at PEN America, a non-profit that advocates for free expression.

“Without that kind of access, it is really difficult for us to engage in the research necessary to better understand the scope and scale of the problem that we face, of how social media is affecting our daily life, and make it better,” she stated further.

Twitter following Meta example

In 2021, Meta blocked researchers at New York University’s Ad Observatory from collecting data about political ads and COVID-19 misinformation. In 2022, the Mark Zuckerberg-led social media giant company announced winding down its monitoring tool CrowdTangle, which has been instrumental in allowing researchers and journalists to monitor Facebook.

Meta and X rivalries went to that extent a month back, when Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg challenged each other in a cage fight. However, the reality is that both ventures are suing Israeli data collection firm Bright Data, for scraping their sites to collect data. Meta itself contracted the same company to scrape the data of the social media company’s rivals.

“Musk announced in March that the company would begin charging USD 42,000 per month for its API, pricing out the vast majority of researchers and academics who have used it to study issues like disinformation and hate speech in more than 17,000 academic studies,” stated the article.

Social media platforms vs researchers

“For years, advocacy organisations have used examples of violative content on social platforms as a way to pressure advertisers to withdraw their support, forcing companies to address problems or change their policies. Without the underlying research into hate speech, disinformation, and other harmful content on social media, these organisations would have little ability to force companies to change,” WIRED noted.

In 2020, advertisers, including Starbucks, Patagonia, and Honda, left Facebook over the social media company’s lax approach against misinformation, particularly posts by former United States president Donald Trump.

After taking over Twitter in October 2022, Elon Musk fired many of the staffers responsible for keeping the micro-blogging platform safe from hate speeches and misinformation. The tech billionaire also reinstated the accounts of banned users like Trump and influencer Andrew Tate, currently indicted under human trafficking laws in Romania.

The University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, along with Oregon State University, UCLA, and University of California Merced, released a study in 2023, which found that hate speech increased dramatically after Musk took over Twitter’s reigns. Also, the company saw its advertising revenue slashed in half as brands got concerned about their products appearing next to misinformation and hate speech.

The study got vindicated as in November 2022, Elon Musk tweeted, “Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists. Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.”

Woolery worried that the cost of fighting the lawsuits may intimidate research bodies and non-profits doing the work of exposing hate speeches and misinformation in the domain of social media.

“Lawsuits like this, especially when we are talking about a non-profit, are definitely seen as an attempt to silence critics. If a non-profit or another individual is not in a financial position where they can really, truly give it all it takes to defend themselves, then they run the risk of either having a poor defence or of simply settling and just trying to get out of it to avoid incurring further costs and reputational damage,” she stated further.

A tough road ahead?

“But the lawsuit doesn’t just put pressure on researchers themselves. It also highlights another avenue through which it now may be more difficult for advocates to access data: third-party social listening platforms. These companies access and analyse data from social platforms to allow their clients—from national security contractors to marketing agencies—to gain insights into their audiences and target messages,” stated the WIRED
article.

Tal-Or Cohen Montemayor, founder and executive director of CyberWell, a non-profit tracking anti-Semitism online in both English and Arabic, stated that in November 2022, his company reached out to Talkwalker, a third-party social listening company, to get a subscription that would allow them to analyse anti-Semitic speech on the then Twitter.

Montemayor told that Talkwalker informed her that the company could not take the non-profit on as a client because of the nature of CyberWell’s work. Montemayor also suspected that “the existing open source tools and social listening tools are being reserved and paywalled only for advertisers and paid researchers. Non-profit organisations are actively being blocked from using these resources.”

“Talkwalker did not respond to a request for comment about whether its agreements with X prohibit it from taking on organisations doing hate speech monitoring as clients. X did not respond to questions about what parameters it sets for the kinds of customers that third-party social listening companies can take on,” the article pointed out.

X’s lawsuit against CCDH also cited a 2023 agreement between Brandwatch and X that outlined that any breach of the micro-blogging platform’s data via Brandwatch’s customers would be considered the responsibility of the social listening company.

Yoel Roth, X’s former senior director of trust and safety at Twitter, stated on BlueSky, “Brandwatch’s social listening business is entirely, completely, 100% dependant on Twitter data access, so I guess it’s not surprising to see how far backwards they’re bending to placate the company.”

A representative from another third-party social listening tool that uses X data, confirmed to WIRED that companies like theirs are heavily reliant on Twitter/X data.

“A lot of the services that are very Twitter-centric, a lot of them are 100% Twitter,” the anonymous source stated.

“In terms of data, Twitter continues to play a significant role in providing data to analytics companies,” the company added further, while noting that X’s new paid-for API has put the squeeze on third-party analytics companies, as losing access to the micro-blogging platform’s data will destroy these research companies.

The source even talked about specific “know your customer” guidelines prohibiting sharing X data with government agencies without prior permission.

After publishing a report on the increasing anti-Semitic content on Twitter since Musk’s takeover, London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), experienced a deluge of abusive tweets, with Musk himself taking potshots at the think-tank with a Tweet carrying poop emoji.

In December 2022, came out ‘Twitter Files’, a declassification of internal documents showing that pre-Musk Twitter had ‘silenced’ conservative users on its platform. Some of these declassified documents even included the names and emails of disinformation researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory. Some of these individuals have now reportedly become the targets of online hate.

Sasha Havlicek, cofounder and CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), now pins her hopes on the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA), which will eventually mandate access for researchers to data from large social platforms. And yes, such laws should be made mandatory in other parts of the world.

In light of the numerous challenges discussed, the trajectory of Elon Musk’s leadership and its ultimate outcome remains intriguing. Overcoming the array of obstacles will determine his success in steering the platform forward.

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