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Op-ed

Elon Musk’s Twitter shows its dark side | GUEST COMMENTARY

The Twitter page of Elon Musk is seen on the screen of a computer in Sausalito, Calif., on Monday, April 25, 2022.

For Twitter’s 200 million-plus daily active users, it’s been a long, strange couple of weeks. On Oct. 28, Elon Musk — billionaire, CEO and Twitter superfan — completed the $44 billion acquisition of his overvalued and very favorite corner of the internet. Besides firing Twitter’s top leadership and half the rest of the staff, exactly what he plans to do with his new toy is murky at best.

Except for one thing: the obliteration of content moderation, his primary motive for the purchase.

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For those in the social media industry and those who study it, like me, what Musk views as content moderation is remarkable for its narrowness. It focuses mostly on takedowns of controversial claims, language or account holders, ignoring the moderation work that removes destructive spam and bots. To social media experts, Musk’s disdain for Twitter’s rules comes off as naïve, and his desire for near-absolute “free speech” on the website as a misguided impossibility.

Despite what Musk seems to think, content moderation is far from a partisan tool of the woke mob. Done well, content moderation requires an expansive, interrelated and cross-company system of people, policy and practices. It must adhere to legal mandates that differ by country and can carry costly fines. It must encourage the widest possible user participation and at the same time reduce the potential for user harm from that participation. And it must constantly refine computational tools, automation and the human judgment required to meet those ends.

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The night before Musk formally took charge at Twitter, he crowed to his 115 million followers “the bird is freed.” It was as good as announcing that he didn’t know what he didn’t know.

Twitter’s moderation standards already leaned toward permissiveness, especially when weighed against its closest market peers. For example, unlike many other platforms, Twitter allows users to circulate consensual sexual content featuring adults, giving an outlet to people who enjoy such material while also taking seriously anything that crosses a legal line or violates policies against such things as gratuitous violence, threats, self-harm and the abuse or torture of animals.

Twitter’s former top lawyer and policy chief, Vijaya Gadde, had an outsize role in establishing and policing its expansive but still safe rules. She is as well known for fighting in court for a user’s right to post as she is for banning @realDonaldTrump after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Musk axed Gadde in his first round of firings. In all, Twitter’s new chief executive hacked the staff in half in the first week.

Even before the corporate bloodletting, Musk’s Twitter began to show its dark side. Montclair State University researchers clocked an “immeditate, visible and measurable spike” in hate speech on the site during the first 12 hours of Musk’s ownership.

Musk addressed an open letter to advertisers trying allay their jitters over the possible reputational degradation of the site. Twitter, he said, would not descend into an unmoderated “free-for-all hellscape.” Nonetheless, major advertisers — General Mills, Volkswagen and General Motors among others — “paused” their participation.

“Elon, Great chat yesterday,” marketer Lou Paskalis, tweeted after Musk tried again to calm advertisers’ fears with a meeting. “As you heard overwhelmingly from senior advertisers on the call, the issue concerning us all is content moderation and its impact on BRAND SAFETY/SUITABILITY. You say you’re committed to moderation, but you just laid off 75% of the moderation team!”

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Musk didn’t tweet a correction on that percentage; he just blocked Paskalis. He also threatened to “name and shame” specific brands that had pulled ads, and he blamed “activist” groups for the loss of advertising dollars.

Muskswears he’ll appoint a diverse moderation council to replace old Twitter’s system. But with Twitter bleeding $4 million a day, according to Musk’s tweets, will anyone left be willing to go to the mat the next time @kanyewest, for example, uses his account to project “death con 3″ on Jews?

An apt analogy to the new, Elonian Twitter could perhaps be a car with iffy brakes, speeding down a road with no guardrails. But that might be lost on Musk; he has thus far been relatively unperturbed about spontaneously combusting Teslas and troubled autopilot programming that in one set of tests reportedly failed to recognize the shape of a moving child in its path.

Just before Musk’s takeover of Twitter was finalized, sharped-eyed users noted that he had changed his profile, anointing himself “Chief Twit.” After two weeks of staff bloodletting, revenue missteps, abrupt policy shifts and general Twitter chaos, we now can all say: Hail to the chief.

Sarah T. Roberts (Twitter: @ubiquity75) is an associate professor of gender studies, information studies and labor studies, and is faculty director of the Center for Critical Inquiry at UCLA. She is the author of “Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media.”


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