Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, speaks to CNBC on May 16, 2023.
David A. Grogan | CNBC
The sudden departure of Twitter executives charged with moderating content and brand safety has left the company more vulnerable than ever to hate speech.
On Thursday, Twitter’s vice president of trust and safety Ella Irwin resigned from the company. Following Irwin’s departure, the company’s head of brand safety and ad quality, AJ Brown, reportedly left, as did May Ayed, a program manager who worked on brand safety partnerships.
It’s been a little more than seven months since Elon Musk closed on his $44 billion purchase of Twitter, an investment that has so far lost huge amounts of money. Musk drastically reduced the company’s workforce and reversed policies that restricted what kind of content could be distributed. In response, many brands have halted or reduced their advertising spending, as several civil rights groups have documented.
Twitter, under Musk’s leadership, is the fourth most hated brand in the US, according to the 2023 Axios Harris Reputation Rankings.
The controversy surrounding Musk’s control of Twitter continues to grow.
This week, Musk said it was not against Twitter’s terms of service to use gender-nonconforming trans people on the platform. He said it’s just ‘crude,’ but not illegal.” LGBTQ+ advocates and researchers have disputed his stance, saying it encourages harassment of trans people. On Friday, Musk encouraged his 141.8 million followers to watch a video, posted on Twitter that was deemed transphobic by these groups.
Multiple LGBTQ organizations expressed concern to NBC News about Musk’s decision, saying the company’s new policies will lead to an uptick in transgender hate speech and online abuse.
Although Musk recently hired former NBC Universal global advertising chief Linda Iaccarino to succeed him as CEO, it’s unclear how the new boss will assuage advertisers’ concerns about racist, anti-Semitic, transphobic and homophobic content in light of recent departures and Musk’s continued role as majority owner and technology chief.
Even before the latest high-profile departures, Musk was cutting the number of workers tasked with safety and content moderation as part of massive layoffs at the company. It eliminated the entire AI ethics team, which was responsible for ensuring that harmful content was not algorithmically recommended to users.
Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, recently played down concerns about the spread of hate speech on Twitter. He said at a Wall Street Journal event that since he took over the company in October, hate speech on the platform has decreased and that Twitter has reduced “spam, scams and bots” by “at least 90%.”
Experts and people in the advertising industry told CNBC that there is no evidence to support these claims. Some say Twitter actively discourages independent researchers who try to track such metrics.
Twitter did not provide comment for this story.
The state of hate speech on Twitter
In paper published in April to be presented at the upcoming International Web and Social Media Conference in Cyprus, researchers from Oregon State, the University of Southern California and other institutions showed that hate speech has increased since Musk bought Twitter.
The authors write that accounts known for posting hateful content and insults targeting blacks, Asians, LGTBQ groups and others have increased such tweets “dramatically since the Musk takeover” and show no signs of slowing down. They found that Twitter has not made progress with bots, which have remained as prevalent and active on the social media platform as they were before Musk’s tenure.
Musk before that indicated that Twitter’s recommendation algorithms show less offensive content to people who don’t want to see it.
Keith Burghardt, one of the paper’s authors and a computer scientist at the Information Science Institute at the University of Southern California, told CNBC that the flow of hate speech and other explicit content correlates with a decrease in people working on trust and safety issues. and relaxed content moderation policies.
Musk also told the WSJ event that “most advertisers” have returned to Twitter.
Louis Jones, a longtime media and advertising executive who now works at the Brand Safety Institute, said it’s unclear how many advertisers have resumed spending, but that “a lot of advertisers are pausing because Twitter has limited reach compared to some others platforms’.
Jones said many advertisers are waiting to see how the levels of “toxicity” and hate speech on Twitter change as the site appears to shift to more right-wing users and as the US election season approaches. He said one big challenge for brands is that Musk and Twitter haven’t made clear what they count in their measurements of hate speech, spam, fraud and bots.
Researchers are calling on the billionaire Twitter owner to provide data to support his recent claims.
“More data is critical to really understand whether there is a continuous reduction in either hate speech or bots,” Burghardt said. “This again highlights the need for greater transparency and for academia to have freely available data.”
Show us the data
Obtaining this data is becoming increasingly difficult.
Twitter recently began charging companies for access to its application programming interface (API), which allows them to incorporate and analyze data from Twitter. The lowest paid tier costs $42,000 for 50 million tweets.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the nonprofit Center to Counter Digital Hate, said that because researchers now had to “pay a fortune” to access the API, they had to rely on other potential routes to the data.
“Twitter under Elon Musk was more opaque,” Ahmed said.
He added that Twitter’s search function is less efficient than in the past and that the number of views as seen on certain tweets can suddenly change, making them unstable to use.
“We no longer have any confidence in the accuracy of the data,” Ahmed said.
CCDH analyzed a series of tweets from early 2022 to February 28, 2023. It released report in March analyzed more than 1.7 million tweets collected using a data mining tool and Twitter’s search feature and found that tweets mentioning the shaping narrative had increased by 119% since Musk took over.
This addresses the “false and hateful lie” that the LGBTQ+ community cares for children, according to the report. The CCDH report found that a small number of popular Twitter accounts such as Libs of TikTok and Gays Against Groomers fueled “the hateful ‘grooming’ narrative online”.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group, continues to uncover anti-Semitic posts on Twitter. The group recently conducted its 2023 study of digital terrorism and hate on social platforms and rated Twitter a D-, putting it on a par with Russia’s VK as the worst in the world for major social networks.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of the center’s global social action program, urged Musk to meet with him to discuss the rise of hate speech on Twitter. He said he has yet to hear back.
“They need to take a serious look at it,” Cooper said. If they don’t, he said, lawmakers will be called upon to “do something about it.”
I’M WATCHING: Elon Musk’s visit to China