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We’re witnessing the brain death of Twitter

An analysis of Musk’s tweets shows him at the center of conversations once kept on the fringes of Twitter.

December 15, 2022
blobfish as the twitter "fail whale"
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR; Nounproject

People don’t die in an instant. Death is, instead, a process of shutting down. You stop breathing; your organs stop working, bit by bit. Your brain ceases to function. Brain death is permanent, but your heart can still keep beating on its own for a time.

The state of Twitter since Elon Musk’s takeover feels like this sort of brain death: the processes that keep it online are somehow still beating, but what Twitter was before Musk is never coming back.

On Monday, December 12, Twitter dissolved its Trust and Safety Council, a wide-ranging group of global civil rights advocates, academics, and experts who have advised the company since 2016. Meanwhile, Musk has welcomed back previously banned high-profile extremists like the white nationalist Patrick Casey. According to data compiled by researcher Travis Brown, others reinstated include Meninist, a “men’s rights” account with more than a million followers; Peter McCullough, a cardiologist who gained a large audience for advocating discredited covid-19 treatments and arguing against receiving the vaccine; and Tim Gionet, a far-right media personality who livestreamed his participation in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

Musk’s enthusiasm for eliminating jobs, cutting costs, and undoing Twitter's safety infrastructure has caused advertisers to leave in droves. At one point, the company reportedly lost the business of half its top 100 advertising clients, and it has missed weekly US ad revenue expectations by as much as 80%. Musk’s behavior now poses difficult questions for the brands that remain. The company has stopped enforcing its policy on covid-19 misinformation.

And as people who like Musk’s vision for Twitter return to posting, others are finding it tougher to justify their presence on the site, declaring hiatuses or announcing their migration elsewhere. According to one estimate, Twitter may have lost a million users in just a few days after Musk took over. Others are giving up on tweeting even if they haven’t deleted their accounts yet. Some of these are high profile: Elton John quit Twitter on December 9, citing the site’s policy changes on misinformation.

MIT Technology Review ran an analysis in Hoaxy, a tool created by Indiana University to show how information spreads on Twitter by looking at both keyword frequency and interactions between individual accounts. The results hint at Musk’s new role in this network: as effectively a hall monitor for the far right.

The tool plots interactions visually, showing the connections between individual Twitter accounts on a specific keyword or hashtag and indicating whether that account is the one amplifying the search term to others or being mentioned by accounts that are doing so. Accounts that are more actively involved in conversations appear as nodes.

Musk was a key “node” of activity around usage of the “groomer” slur—we looked at both “Groomer” and “OK groomer”— from Friday, December 9, through the afternoon of Sunday, December 11, when we ran the analysis. (We also ran a second query on Wednesday, December 14, which showed similar results.) Musk himself has not tweeted the word—which, according to a report from GLAAD and Media Matters, has dramatically increased in frequency and reach during his tenure. Instead, he has been repeatedly tagged into conversations by others who are using it.

Sometimes these users are apparently seeking attention and amplification from the guy who owns Twitter, and implicitly identifying the slur’s recipients as potential targets for harassment. At other times, Musk is tagged in conversations where the slur is used to attack those who directly disagree with him on Twitter—including Jack Dorsey, the company’s cofounder and former CEO, who tweeted at Musk last week to dispute his claim that the company “refused to take action on child exploitation for years!” Musk regularly interacts with a selection of power users and fans, including conservative meme accounts and far-right personalities like Ian Miles Cheong and Andy Ngo.

Increasingly, Musk isn’t just enabling these conversations—he’s joining in. “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” he tweeted last weekend. When astronaut Scott Kelly publicly pleaded with him not to “mock and promote hate toward already marginalized and at-risk-of-violence members of the #LGBTQ+ community,” Musk replied, ”Forcing your pronouns upon others when they didn’t ask, and implicitly ostracizing those who don’t, is neither good nor kind to anyone.”

Earlier that weekend, Musk participated in a smear campaign targeting Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of Trust and Safety and a key figure in those documents, with baseless accusations of pedophilia. (Musk, who previously fended off a defamation suit for calling a British caver participating in a rescue operation of a Thai youth soccer team a “pedo guy,” did not go so far as to actually accuse Roth of being a pedophile. Rather, he jumped in the replies of a podcast host who tagged Musk into a conversation about one of Roth’s old tweets.) Roth, according to CNN, was forced to leave his home and go into hiding after receiving numerous death threats. (Roth did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)

He makes decisions on the fly, sometimes through unscientific and easy-to-manipulate Twitter polls.

Meanwhile, Musk’s focus on advancing American far-right narratives about free speech completely ignores Twitter’s role around the world. Musk’s takeover of Twitter is “apocalyptic,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the executive director of Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization, in a late November call with reporters. Soundararajan was part of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council and worked with the platform to address its use as a tool to incite violence against marginalized groups in India.

“We have an American company operating in a genocidal market,” Soundararajan said, adding that all the Twitter staff members her organization has worked with have been fired. 

Elon Musk’s Twitter is both essential and broken. There is no alternative platform for people who have long used Twitter to seek help, gain visibility, and create supportive communities. Yet at the same time, Musk has positioned himself as an antagonist to some of those same groups.

Many users—the ones who aren’t ideologically aligned with Musk—have watched Twitter’s vital organs slowly shut down and wondered how to respond. Do you stay and fight for its life, hoping that the people who were there before Musk’s purchase will simply outlast him? Or is it time to go?

Katherine Cross, a PhD student at the University of Washington who studies networked online harassment, has argued that Twitter will likely never recover, and it’s time to simply think about the platform as a site catering to a “niche community” of people who think like Musk.

“We can’t force Twitter to do anything,” she says. “There has to be a reimagining of its place in the internet ecosystem.”

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