By Robert Reich
I detest bullies. I’ve got a deep, visceral, stomach-churning repugnance toward people who abuse their wealth and power by hurting others. It’s probably related to my being bullied as a kid because I was so short. And to my discovery years later that one of the kind boys who protected me was subsequently tortured and murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan when he was registering Black voters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, 1964.
Bullying and hate run together.
It was reported that Elon Musk’s X Corp., parent of Twitter, has sent a letter to the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) accusing the nonprofit of making “a series of troubling and baseless claims that appear calculated to harm Twitter generally, and its digital advertising business specifically” — and threatening to sue CCDH.
The letter cited research published by CCDH about hate speech on Twitter since Musk took control, including a finding that Twitter had taken no action against 99 percent of Twitter Blue accounts that tweeted hate. Musk’s letter calls the research “false, misleading or both” and accuses the CCDH of using improper methodology.
Today, I want to do four things: (1) Summarize research showing that Musk’s Twitter/X has been spreading hate and malicious lies big time — research coming not just from the CCDH but also from the Anti-Defamation League, Media Matters, and Stanford University, among many others. (2) Tell you why this hate surge has been happening on Twitter. (3) Show how Musk’s lawsuit is designed to silence those who are revealing this surge. (4) And explain why Musk is so intent on silencing them.
1. Research from many sources confirms that hateful speech and malicious lies have soared since Musk’s acquisition of Twitter
(1) CCDH’s research — based on social media analysis tool Brandwatch — reveals that during the first three months of Musk’s tenure, the rate of daily tweets containing slurs against Black Americans more than tripled, and from October through March 2023, tweets referring to the LGBTQ+ community alongside slurs such as “groomer” rose 119 percent.
(2) According to research by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), reports of harassment on Twitter have increased, and extremist content has spiked. Harassment reports rose 6 percent this year. QAnon-related hashtags rose 91percent in May alone compared with a year earlier.
(3) According to research by Media Matters, COVID-19 misinformation has risen. Between October and April 2023, nearly a quarter of the top tweets related to COVID-19 included information about vaccines that is unproven and untested. Hate speech has also spiked. “Musk has repeatedly said that hate speech has decreased on the platform, but based on the data studies that we have done, we have not seen that,” said Kayla Gogarty, deputy research director at Media Matters. “We have seen the opposite.”
(4) According to a survey conducted by the USC Marshall Neely Social Media Index, more than 30 percent of U.S. adults who used Twitter between March and May 2023 reported seeing content they consider “bad for the world.” That percentage was higher than for Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat.
(5) Many users have reported seeing tweets that condoned or glorified violence toward marginalized groups or videos that were violent and sexually explicit and easily accessible to underage children. Video from a mass shooting at a Texas mall earlier this year was shared openly on Twitter for hours before the company took action; so was a video of a cat in a blender.
(6) Researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory found that Twitter has failed to take down dozens of images of child sex abuse. The team identified 128 Twitter accounts selling child sex abuse material (CSAM) and 43 instances of known CSAM. “It is very surprising for any known CSAM to publicly appear on major social media platforms,” said lead author and chief technologist David Thiel.
(7) Meanwhile, Musk himself has also engaged with extremist voices and replied to antisemitic conspiracy theories and anti-trans narratives. Musk’s engagement has boosted those posts, because he is followed by 148 million people.
2. Why this has happened
None of this should be a surprise. Under Musk, Twitter has loosened its content rules and reinstated accounts previously banned for violating Twitter’s content policies.
Musk also fired most of Twitter’s trust and safety team, which was responsible for filtering out hateful and violent posts. “Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, we have seen the platform go from having one of the best trust and safety divisions in the industry, to one of the worst,” said Nadim Nashif, director at the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media.
3. Musk’s lawsuit is bullying, designed to silence those who are revealing his hate-peddling.
Musk’s threat to sue the Center for Countering Digital Hate is clearly intended to silence nonprofit researchers who have been reporting on the rise of hate speech on Twitter since Musk took over the platform.
Musk and his X Corporation have the deepest pockets anywhere. They can almost instantly summon an army of lawyers with the power to pulverize nonprofit researchers who lack the resources to respond.
Hence, Musk’s threat is a form of “SLAPP” (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), a legal action launched by large corporations in recent years to silence public-interest groups that report on their doings. Such lawsuits make a mockery of freedom of speech.
Musk’s threatened lawsuit isn’t the only weapon he’s using against researchers analyzing the rise of hate on Twitter. In February, Twitter began charging for access to its application programming interface, or API.
Researchers had been using Twitter’s API to sift through hundreds of millions of tweets. Now that they’re being charged thousands of dollars for access to a small fraction of that number of tweets, much of that research has been put on hold. Researchers at Stanford, Berkeley, the CCDH, and the ADL say they can no longer afford access to Twitter data.
4. Why is Musk doing this?
Follow the money. Musk’s letter to the CCDH alleged that CCDH’s research was intended “to harm Twitter’s business by driving advertisers away from the platform.”
That’s it, folks. It’s all about ad revenue.
Since Musk bought Twitter and opened the door to vileness, Twitter’s advertising sales have plummeted. U.S. ad revenue for the five weeks from April 1 to the first week of May was $88 million — down 59 percent from a year earlier.
Advertisers say they’ve left Twitter because of concerns over harmful content — including Musk’s own posts.
Corporations spend enormous sums seeking to build and protect their brands. They don’t want those brands to be besmirched by hate.
Yet Twitter’s epidemic of hate makes it almost impossible to protect those brands.
Consider, for example, the National Socialist Network — an explicitly pro-Hitler neo-Nazi group that engages in violence, has connections to terrorism, and has used Twitter to recruit new members since November 2022 (just weeks after Musk’s takeover).
If you were running the ad budget for, say, Honeywell, Discovery, National Women’s Soccer League, the Pittsburgh Steelers, USA Today, or Manchester City, you might be upset to find your ads appearing alongside the National Socialist Network — and so might your customers. Yet that’s exactly what occurred.
(Only after Media Matters reported this did Twitter suspend the National Socialist Network’s account.)
Competition for ad dollars will soon become even fiercer, as Facebook’s Meta introduces advertising to its Twitter clone, Threads.
Bottom line: The ad dollars Musk and his X Corp. desperately seek will return only after Twitter/X stops promoting hate.