Elon Musk and Twitter are facing growing brand safety concerns after the two executives left

  • Several Twitter executives charged with brand safety have left the company.
  • The departures come as researchers say the site’s problems with hate speech have worsened.
  • Musk claims hate speech and spam have decreased since taking office, but experts say the data doesn’t support his assertions.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, speaks with CNBC on May 16, 2023.

David A. Grosjean | CNBC

The sudden departure of Twitter executives tasked 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. After Irwin’s departure, the company’s head of brand safety and ad quality, AJ Brown, reportedly left, as did May Ayed, a program director who worked on brand safety partnerships.

It’s been just over seven months since Elon Musk closed on his $44 billion purchase of Twitter, an investment that has so far been a big money loser. Musk has drastically reduced the company’s workforce and rolled back policies that restricted the type of content that could be shared. In response, many brands have suspended or reduced their ad spending, as several civil rights groups have documented.

Twitter, under Musk, 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.

Musk said this week that he is not against Twitter’s terms of service for gender misinformation with transgender people on the platform. Doing so is just “rude” but it’s not illegal, he said. LGBTQ+ advocates and researchers dispute his stance, claiming it advocates bullying of trans people. On Friday, Musk promoted a video on Twitter that these groups deemed transphobic.

Several LGBTQ organizations have expressed their displeasure with NBC News about Musk’s decision, saying the company’s new policies will lead to an increase in anti-transgender hate speech and internet abuse.

Although Musk recently tapped former NBC Universal director of global advertising Linda Iaccarino to succeed him as CEO, it’s unclear how the new boss will ease advertisers’ concerns regarding racist, anti-Semitic, transphobic and LGBT content in light of recent departures and Musk’s role. continuous. As majority owner and chief technology officer.

Even before his recent high-profile exits, Musk had been cutting back on safety and content moderation mandates as part of company-wide layoffs. It wiped out the entire AI ethics team, which was responsible for ensuring that malicious content was not recommended to users algorithmically.

Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, recently played down concerns about the spread of hate speech on Twitter. He claimed during 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, fraud, and bots” by “at least 90%.”

Advertising industry experts and insiders told CNBC there is no evidence to support the claims. Some say that Twitter is actively blocking independent researchers trying to track such metrics.

Twitter did not provide comment for this story.

In a research paper published in April that will be presented at the upcoming International Conference on Web and Social Media in Cyprus, researchers from Oregon State, the University of Southern California, and other institutions show that hate speech has increased since Musk bought Twitter.

Accounts known for posts containing hateful content and insults targeting blacks, Asians, LGTBQ groups, and others have increased such tweets “significantly after Musk’s takeover,” the authors wrote, and show no signs of slowing. They found that Twitter has not made headway with bots, which remain as prevalent and active on Twitter as they were before Musk’s tenure.

Musk previously Shown 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 University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, told CNBC that the flood of hate speech and other explicit content is associated with fewer people working on trust and safety issues and watered-down content moderation policies.

Musk also said at a Wall Street Journal event that “most advertisers” are back on Twitter.

It’s not clear how many advertisers have resumed spending but “many advertisers are still on pause, as Twitter has limited reach compared to some platforms,” ​​said Lois Jones, a longtime media and advertising executive who is now at the Brand Integrity Institute. other.”

Jones said many advertisers are waiting to see how levels of “toxicity” and hate speech change on Twitter as the site appears to lean toward more right-wing users and as the US election approaches. One big challenge for brands, he said, is that Musk and Twitter haven’t made it clear what counts in their metrics for evaluating hate speech, spam, fraud, and bots.

The researchers are calling on Musk to provide data to support his latest claims.

“More data is critical to understanding whether there is a sustained decline in hate speech or bots,” Burghardt said. “This once again underscores the need for more transparency and the need for academics to have freely available data.”

Getting that data is getting more and more difficult.

Twitter recently started charging companies for access to its Application Programming Interface (API), which allows them to integrate and analyze Twitter data. The lowest paying tier costs $42,000 for 50 million tweets.

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the nonprofit Center for Digital Hate, said that because researchers now have to “pay a fortune” to access the API, they have to rely on other potential avenues for data.

“Twitter under Elon Musk has been more ambiguous,” Ahmed said.

He added that Twitter’s search function is less effective than it was in the past and that the view count, as seen on certain tweets, can change suddenly, making its use unstable.

“We no longer have any confidence in the accuracy of the data,” Ahmed said.

The Advisory Council for Human Rights analyzed a series of tweets from the beginning of 2022 through February 28, 2023. It released a report in March analyzing more than 1.7 million tweets collected using Twitter’s data collection tool and search function, and found that the tweets indicated hateful “grooming”. Narratives are up 119% since Musk took over.

This refers to the “false and hateful lie” that the LGBTQ+ community sponsors children. CCDH found that a few popular Twitter accounts like Libs of TikTok and Gays Against Groomers are driving the hateful “grooming” narrative online. ”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, continues to find anti-Semitic posts on Twitter. The group recently ran its 2023 study of digital terrorism and hate on social platforms and rated Twitter a D-, putting it on par with Russia’s VK as the worst in the world for large social networks.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of the global social action agenda at the center, invited Musk to meet with him to discuss the rise in hate speech on Twitter. He said he has not yet received a response.

“They need to look at it seriously,” Cooper said. If they don’t, he said, lawmakers will be called upon to “do something about it.”

He watches: Elon Musk’s visit to China

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