It’s perhaps understandable: Twitter has been plagued with problems for years, both monetary and moral. When Musk made his offer, tech stocks were already crashing and it was clear he had neither a plan to fix the company nor the inclination to waste much of his fortune to find out. After some legal back and forth, he reluctantly agreed to complete the $44 billion acquisition.
Now Musk, who is also CEO of Tesla and SpaceX (which don’t really look like part-time jobs), is trying to figure out what to do with his new toy.
He has already started pursuing some controversial changes. They include charging users for their “blue check” verification badges, as well as developing a new paid video feature, which will likely be used for “adult” material. But his most confusing moves involve simultaneous plans to A) reduce font content, while B) increase ad revenue.
These objectives are somewhat contradictory.
Musk has long complained about censorship on Twitter, including the suspension of high-profile accounts (like that of former President Donald Trump) and other users accused of hate speech or baseless conspiracy theories (the latter being something that Musk himself occasionally fiddles with). For this reason, his rise to power has been cheered by free speech absolutists as well as racists, Holocaust deniers and other tinfoil hat wearers who claim to have been “forbidden by shadow” or otherwise muzzled for too long.
Look, I’m not going to pretend that finding the right degree of content moderation is an easy task. Humans can’t agree on what counts as “misinformation”, so it’s quite difficult to teach an algorithm to identify it. One man’s fake news is another man’s free speech. Allowing more hostile, discolored, or otherwise questionable tweets will alienate some users, but banning them will also infuriate other users (and some lawmakers).
Musk has made it clear that he will allow a lot more content that would once have been purged and punished by Twitter staff – which is perhaps an easier strategy to implement if you plan to lay off half of your workforce.
Even before a concrete new content policy seems to have been implemented, legions of trolls and zealots have already started testing the safeguards. Within 12 hours of completing Musk’s purchase, usage of the n-word on Twitter jumped nearly 500%, according to the Princeton-based Network Contagion Research Institute.
Advertisers, Twitter’s main source of income, are worried about these developments and what the platform might look like in the Musk era. Adidas may not want its logo to appear next to, say, anti-Semitic tweets. (If you don’t believe me, ask Kanye West, now known as Ye.) Family brands probably aren’t thrilled to pop up alongside porn, either.
IPG and Havas Media, two multinational advertising companies, have advised their clients to suspend spending on Twitter for the time being, and an IPG-owned consulting firm reports that most clients surveyed plan to follow the recommendation.
Some mainstream brands have already done this, including General Motors (a Tesla competitor). The Financial Times, citing inside sources, reported on Wednesday that L’Oreal had also suspended advertising spending on the platform; the company later released a statement saying it had made “no decision” regarding Twitter ads.
But it’s understandable why the global cosmetics and haircare giant might feel conflicted over the issue: skinheads probably don’t buy a lot of shampoo, but they strength be on the lookout for a new sunscreen.
Musk’s initial response to advertisers’ concerns was to assure brands that Twitter would not become a “hellscape free for all(too late, I think). When that strategy didn’t work, he tried to bully them online into sticking around. In a Twitter poll job On Wednesday, he asked his followers whether advertisers should support “free speech” or “political correctness.” ”
It is hard to imagine that this strategy will succeed. Either Target and Pepsi and the like think it’s a good use of their advertising dollars to share a platform with neo-Nazis and incels, or it’s not. All of this reminds me a bit of recent attempts by progressives to berate and punish companies for lowering their prices, rather than changing the incentives that these companies face.
Musk and the Democratic Party may not have much in common these days. But maybe they can bond around this shared experience: they’re both learning how hard it is to shame companies into doing something that’s not in their financial interest.