Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, Inc. was welcomed with a backlash: over a third of its top 100 marketers did not advertise on the platform in the first 2 weeks after the takeover. This drastic drop in advertising spending is “an indication of the extent of skittishness among advertisers about billionaire Elon Musk’s control of the company”, concludes The Washington Post. While Musk is trying to cut costs and find alternative sources of revenue, Twitter is still heavily reliant on advertising. In 2021, about 90% of the company’s 5 billion in revenue was generated by advertising. This means that the loss of advertising revenue can significantly affect the company’s financial stability.
Twitter is known as a platform for increasing brand awareness as it provides access to a large and diverse audience through advertising campaigns. As Twitter is undergoing operational changes, marketers are reevaluating whether it makes sense to continue advertising campaigns. Matthew Quint, Director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School, observes that many companies are under “pressure, from a range of their stakeholders and consumers, around being connected with content that is viewed as inflammatory.” In his opinion, the challenge for them and for Twitter itself is that Musk is becoming “a very strong brand himself, and a controversial brand”.
Musk is still building a relationship with marketers. In October 2022, he posted on Twitter a letter to advertisers in which he pledged that the platform will not become a “free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”. This pledge, however, was contradicted by his decision to suspend access to content moderation tools for some employees. This decision was welcomed with a swift reaction: civil rights groups made Twitter’s top 20 advertisers announce they will suspend their marketing campaigns if Musk undermines the platform’s community standards.
The activist pressure resulted in a significant loss of ad revenue, confirmed by Musk himself in one of his tweets: “Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists.” These words were not convincing enough. Jessica González, Co-CEO of Free Press, a media democracy advocacy group, said: “When you lay off almost 50% of your staff, including teams that are in charge of actually tracking, monitoring and enforcing content moderation rules, that necessarily means that content moderation has changed.”
Musk’s new policies have empowered hate groups. “The U.S. has seen a sharp increase in hate speech, and that is in English. Imagine what users speaking other languages are experiencing,” notes González. Hate speech in the US often attracts the attention of the mainstream media. But hate speech which incites violence is a global problem. For example, white nationalist groups have been ‘successfully’ spreading their racist conspiracy theory using Twitter. With a poor content moderation policy in place such conspiracy theories have a platform to thrive and affect less critical people.
Instead of being a platform for free speech, Twitter is transitioning into the “cesspool of lies, misinformation, and trolling negativity”, claims a former user. She observes that Twitter “was already heading in that direction”. Prioritizing free speech on Twitter has boosted downloads of Twitter alternatives. Paradoxically, giving more freedom of self-expression to users has made many of them deactivate their accounts. Many former users said that they were concerned about their privacy, what ‘free speech’ means to Musk and how his decisions could spread hate speech and harassment on the platform.