Elon Musk, Twitter face brand safety concerns after executives leave

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

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

David A Grogan | 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. Following Irwin’s departure, the company’s head of brand safety and ad quality, AJ Brown, reportedly left, as did Maie Aiyed, a program manager 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 giant loser. Musk has dramatically reduced the company’s workforce and rolled back policies that limited what kind of content could circulate. In response, many brands suspended or reduced their advertising spending, as several civil rights groups have documented.

Twitter, under Musk, is the fourth most hated brand in the United States according to Axios Harris Reputation Rankings in 2023.

The controversy surrounding Musk’s control of Twitter continues to build.

This week, Musk said it is not against Twitter’s terms of service to misgender transgender people on the platform. He said it’s just ‘rude,’ but not illegal.” LGBTQ+ advocates and researchers dispute his position, claiming it invites bullying of transgender people. On Friday, Musk promoted a video on Twitter that was deemed transphobic by those the groups.

Numerous LGBTQ organizations expressed dismay to NBC News over Musk’s decision, saying the company’s new policy will lead to an increase in anti-trans hate speech and abuse online.

Although Musk recently hired former NBC Universal global advertising chief Linda Yaccarino to succeed him as CEO, it’s unclear how the new chief will assuage advertisers’ concerns about racist, anti-Semitic, transphobic and homophobic content in light of the recent departures and Musk’s ongoing role as majority owner and chief technology officer.

Even before the latest high-profile exits, Musk had reduced the number of security and content moderation workers as part of the company’s sweeping layoffs. He eliminated the entire AI ethics team, which was responsible for ensuring that harmful content was not algorithmically recommended to users.

Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has recently downplayed concerns about the spread of hate speech on Twitter. He claimed at a Wall Street Journal event that since he took over the company in October, hate speech on the platform has declined and that Twitter has cut “spam, scams and bots” by “at least 90%.”

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

Twitter had no comment for this story.

In a 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 showed that hate speech has increased since Musk bought Twitter.

The authors wrote that the accounts known for posts containing hateful content and gossip targeting blacks, Asians, LGTBQ groups and others increased such tweeting “dramatically after Musk’s takeover” and show no signs of slowing. They found that Twitter has not made progress with bots, which have been as prevalent and active on Twitter as they were before Musk’s tenure.

Musk previously indicated that Twitter’s recommendation algorithms show less offensive content to people who don’t want to see it.

Keith Burghardt, one of the authors of the paper and a computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, told CNBC that the deluge of hate speech and other explicit content correlates with the reduction of people working on trust and security issues and relaxed content moderation guidelines.

Musk also said at the WSJ event that “most advertisers” had returned to Twitter.

Louis Jones, a longtime media and advertising executive who now works at the Brand Safety Institute, said it’s not clear how many advertisers have resumed spending, but that “many advertisers remain on hold, as Twitter has limited reach compared to some other platforms .”

Jones said many advertisers are waiting to see how levels of “toxicity” and hate speech on Twitter change as the site appears to tilt toward more right-wing users and as US elections approach. He said a big challenge for brands is that Musk and Twitter haven’t made clear what they count in their metrics to assess hate speech, spam, fraud and bots.

Scientists are asking Musk to provide data to back up his recent claims.

“More data is essential to really understand whether there is a continuous decline in either hate speech or bots,” Burghardt said. “It again underlines the need for greater transparency and for academics to have freely available data.”

It is becoming more difficult to obtain this data.

Twitter recently began charging companies for access to its application programming interface (API), which allows them to incorporate and analyze Twitter data. The lowest paid tier costs $42,000 for 50 million tweets.

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

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

He added that Twitter’s search function is less efficient than in the past and that view counts, as seen on certain tweets, can change suddenly, making them unstable to use.

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

The CCDH analyzed a series of tweets from early 2022 to February 28, 2023. It released a report in March that analyzed over 1.7 million tweets collected using a data scraping tool and Twitter’s search function, and found that tweets mentioning the hateful ” grooming” narrative has risen 119% since Musk took over.

It refers to “the false and hateful lie” that the LGBTQ+ community is babysitting. CCDH found that a small number of popular Twitter accounts such as Libs of TikTok and Gays Against Groomers have fueled the “hateful ‘grooming’ narrative online.”

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

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action agenda at the center, asked Musk to meet with him to discuss the rise of hate speech on Twitter. He said he has yet to receive a response.

“They need to take a serious look at it,” Cooper said. If they don’t, he said, lawmakers will be asked to “do something about it.”

SEE: Elon Musk’s visit to China

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