Researchers “risk paying too little attention” to Twitter (“X”) as it “rapidly changes into something new and frightening.”
That warning in Nature earlier this month foreshadowed an Elon Musk endorsed antisemitic tweet. The fallout from that endorsement (“the actual truth“) on Wednesday has been swift and brutal, financially.
Update: noon, Saturday
Predictably, Musk has threatened a “thermonuclear lawsuit” the “split second court opens on Monday.” As First Amendment attorney Ken White noted on Twitter, not tongue in cheek, “it’s 2023 and you file e-complaints now.”
Last month, researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public began analyzing Twitter data about the Hamas/Israel conflict. They had to painstakingly rely on the public search interface. That’s because Musk stopped providing academic researchers with free data access earlier this year, thus hindering academic research due to the expense.
What they found is shocking.
University of Washington researchers identified seven accounts (“the new elites” are a “small [group] of persons who exercise disproportionate power and influence”) who had a reach of 1.6 billion views on 1,834 tweets for the three-day period midnight October 7 to midnight October 10, Pacific. The topic? The conflict between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
That’s 1,600,000,000 views and 611 tweets per day (about one tweet every two minutes).
Over the same period, “topic-relevant tweets” from the top seven professional news sources had only 112 million views on 298 tweets (an average of 376K per tweet).
That’s 112,000,000 views and 99 tweets per day (about one tweet every 15 minutes).
Combined, the seven “new elites” accounts have less than 1% of the followers of the top six news organizations … but 14 times their combined reach.
Rando accounts (an NFT entrepreneur plus six ‘news aggregators’, five which are anonymous) are significantly outperforming professional news organizations. Musk interacts with each of them (such as likes, replies, and/or shares).
Such outsized performance suggests systemic algorithmic bias, a bias that could be the result of attention from Musk, who has 160 million followers. Musk’s decision to stop showing news headline previews on tweets might also be at play.
What happened Wednesday?
On Wednesday night, “the world’s wealthiest man…affirmed the deadliest anti-Semitic conspiracy theory in recent American history.
After Musk endorsed an antisemitic tweet (screen shot), a coalition of Jewish leaders (now 164) again called on advertisers “to stop funneling money onto X as antisemitism explodes on the platform.”
The original seemed to echo the beliefs of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which is popular among white supremacists and right-wing extremists.
On Thursday, MediaMatters reported that ads for Apple, Bravo, IBM, Oracle and Xfinity had appeared on Twitter “next to posts that tout Hitler and his Nazi Party.” They had the receipts (screenshots).
Also on Thursday, IBM told the Financial Times it had “suspended all advertising on X while we investigate this entirely unacceptable situation…. [we have] zero tolerance for hate speech and discrimination.” [Aside: IBM built the computers that Hitler used to document Jewish citizens in WWII.]
Friday, the financial dominos continued to fall.
Apple, Comcast/NBC Universal, Disney, Lionsgate, Paramount Global and Warner Brothers Discovery have suspended their Twitter ad buys, according to news reports. The Washington Post notes that Apple was once “the platform’s largest advertiser, accounting for nearly $50 million in revenue in the first quarter of 2022.”
A Lionsgate spokesperson said the company suspended advertisements on X on Friday afternoon, saying the decision was spurred by “Elon’s tweet.” Lionsgate is an entertainment and film distribution company.
According to Axios, of “Ebiquity’s 31 major brand clients that advertised with X last August, only two remained spending with the platform as of September.”
The European Commission has also suspended its advertising.
[T]he Commission’s Deputy Chief Spokesperson Dana Spinant said disinformation on X, especially in relation to the Israel-Hamas war, had led the institution to “recommend to temporarily suspend advertising on this platform until further notice to avoid risks of reputational damage to the Commission.”
It is unacceptable to repeat the hideous lie behind the most fatal act of Antisemitism in American history at any time, let alone one month after the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust. Like President [Joe] Biden said weeks ago memorializing the victims of the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting, the October 7 “devastating atrocity has brought to the surface painful memories left by millennia of Antisemitism;” and under his presidency “we will continue to condemn Antisemitism at every turn.”
We condemn this abhorrent promotion of Antisemitic and racist hate in the strongest terms, which runs against our core values as Americans. We all have a responsibility to bring people together against hate, and an obligation to speak out against anyone who attacks the dignity of their fellow Americans and compromises the safety of our communities.
Look back, then forward
Our work on last year’s US midterm elections showed that, even before the worrying changes at X, the platform was able to disseminate election conspiracy theories broadly and with remarkable efficiency (see go.nature.com/47gg02). We feel that X will play that part in next year’s US elections — including the presidential race — as well as in dozens of others around the world in what is shaping up to be a very important year…
For researchers who have studied Twitter over the past decade, revisiting the platform might seem like a step backwards. But because X is still influential — and is morphing into something notably different — such work might be more important now than ever before.
Note about the headline:
In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, “a stream separating Rome from the province of Gaul” [modern day France as well as parts of Belgium, Germany and Italy], thus “began[ing] a civil war that would end the Roman Republic.”
Featured image: MidJourney and Kathy E. Gill.