Elon Musk is becoming the mouthpiece of the radical right. Twitter’s heart is still beating, but the brain isn’t working anymore.
People rarely die from one second to the next. Rather, death is a process of switching off that can last for minutes: the heart stops beating, breathing stops, and the organs gradually stop working. The brain stops functioning. Brain death is permanent, but the heart can continue to beat on its own for a while.
The state of Twitter since Elon Musk took over feels like this kind of brain death: the technical heart, the processes that keep it online, kind of still beat. But what Twitter was before Musk is never coming back.
On Monday, December 12, Twitter dissolved its Trust and Safety Council, a diverse group of global civil rights advocates, academics, and experts who have advised the company since 2016. Meanwhile, Musk has brought high-profile extremists like white nationalist Patrick Casey back onto the platform who were previously suspended. Also back on board is Meninist, an account for “men’s rights” with more than a million followers. Controversial cardiologist Peter McCullough advocated life-threatening treatments against Covid-19. And Tim Gionet, a far-right media personality was live-streamed at the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Elon Musk’s downsizing, cost-cutting, and destruction of Twitter’s security infrastructure have caused advertisers to churn in droves. The company has reportedly lost half of its top 100 advertisers and missed target weekly advertising revenue in the US by up to 80 percent. Musk’s behavior is now also causing difficulties for the remaining advertising partners. After all, who wants to advertise on a platform that has officially given up fighting misinformation and whose owners make decisions either spontaneously or through non-scientific and easily manipulated polls?
Sure, there are plenty of people who like Musk’s vision for Twitter and are now posting more. For others, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify their presence on the site. Some take a break, and others migrate to alternative services. According to one estimate, Twitter could have lost a million users within days of Musk’s takeover, including celebrities like Elton John, who announced his departure on December 9.
Elon Musk spreads right-wing narratives
MIT Technology Review conducted an analysis using Hoaxy, a tool developed by Indiana University that shows the spread of information on Twitter based on keyword frequency and interactions between individual accounts. The results point to Musk’s new role in this network: he is a kind of corridor guard for the far right. Hoaxy visually represents the interactions and shows the connections between individual Twitter accounts to a specific keyword or hashtag and whether that account is the one that is sharing the search term with others or is being mentioned by accounts that are doing so. Accounts that are more actively involved in conversations appear as nodes.
From Friday, December 9 through the afternoon of Sunday, December 11, when we conducted the analysis, Musk was a major node in the use of the swear word “groomer,” which refers to an adult who solicits a minor for sex. We examined both “Groomer” and “OK groomer”. According to a report by the NGOs GLAAD and Media Matters, the frequency and reach of the terms have increased dramatically since Elon Musk took over. While Musk has not previously tweeted the swear word himself, he has been repeatedly tweeted by others who use the word.
These users are apparently specifically looking for the attention and support of the man who owns Twitter. The people who vilify them mark them as likely targets for further harassment. In other instances, 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 co-founder, and former CEO. He recently challenged Musk’s claim that Twitter had refused to take action against child exploitation for years.
Musk often takes an active part in the discussion. He regularly interacts with a range of power users and fans, including conservative meme accounts and far-right figures like Ian Miles Cheong and Andy Ngo. “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” he tweeted last weekend, joining the movement to bring immunologist and US government health adviser Anthony Fauci to justice. When astronaut Scott Kelly publicly urged him “not to ridicule and incite hatred at members of the #LGBTQ+ community who are already marginalized and at risk of violence,” Musk replied, “It’s neither good nor kind to force your pronouns on others, if they haven’t asked for it, and implicitly ostracize those who don’t.”
An ex-Twitter security expert had to go into hiding
Earlier in the weekend, Musk implicitly participated in a smear campaign against Yoel Roth, the former head of Twitter’s trust and safety department, who has been accused of baseless allegations of pedophilia. Musk, who had to fend off a defamation lawsuit in the past for calling a British caver a “pedo guy”, did not personally accuse Roth of being a pedophile. He did, however, point to a response from a podcast host who engaged Musk in conversation about one of Roth’s old tweets. According to the news channel CNN, Roth was forced to leave his home and go into hiding after receiving numerous death threats.
While Musk eagerly caters to the American far-right narrative of supposed freedom of expression, he forgets Twitter’s role in the rest of the world. Musk’s takeover of Twitter was “apocalyptic,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, CEO of Equality Labs, a Hindu civil rights organization, in late November. Soundararajan was a member of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council and worked with the platform to combat its use as a tool to incite violence against marginalized groups in India.”We have an American company that operates in a market teeming with genocide operated,” Soundararajan said, adding that all Twitter employees her organization has worked with have been fired.
Twitter: Is it time to go?
Elon Musk’s Twitter is important and broken at the same time. There is no alternative platform for people who have long used Twitter to seek help, gain visibility, and build supportive communities. At the same time, Musk has also positioned himself as an opponent of some of these groups.
Many users — not ideologically aligned with Musk — have watched as Twitter’s vitals slowly shut down and wondered how to respond. Do you stay and fight for your life hoping the people who were there before Musk bought him just outlive him? Or is it time to go?
Katherine Cross, a graduate student at the University of Washington studying networked online harassment, believes that Twitter will likely never recover and that it’s time to start looking at the platform simply as a site that is aimed at a “niche community” of people who think like Musk.
“We can’t force Twitter to do anything,” she says. “There needs to be a new notion of its place in the internet ecosystem”.