Elon Musk over the weekend reactivated Donald Trump’s Twitter account, overturning a ban imposed in January 2021 after his posts were believed to have incited violence at the US Capitol. Trump has stopped using his account, but social media researchers have been warning for months that his return could bring a wave of division and disinformation to the platform. Even without his controversial presence, a new analysis of millions of tweets shows that hate speech has become more visible on Twitter under Musk’s leadership.
Researchers at Tufts University Digital planet group followed hate speech on Twitter before and after Musk took ownership of the company in late October. To do this, they used a stream of data provided by the platform known as the firehose: a feed of every public tweet, like, retweet, and reply shared on the platform. The group has used the same approach in previous studies, including one looking at toxicity on Twitter surrounding the US midterm elections.
To study how Musk’s ownership of Twitter changed, the researchers searched tweets posted between March 1 and November 13 of this year. LGBTQ+, racist or anti-Semitic intent. They then rated the language of those tweets in each of the three categories and tried to judge their true intent.
For the months leading up to Musk’s takeover, the researchers considered only one tweet out of three top 20 lists to be actually hateful, in this case against Jewish people. The others quoted someone else’s hateful comments or used the relevant keywords in a non-hateful way.
In the weeks after Musk took over Twitter, the same analysis found that hateful tweets became much more prominent among the most popular tweets with potentially toxic language. For tweets containing words related to anti-LGBTQ+ or anti-Semitic messages, seven of the top 20 messages in each category were now hateful. For popular tweets that may have used racist language, one of the top 20 was rated as hate speech.
“Twitter’s toxicity has significantly increased the number of post-Musks entering buildings,” he says Bhaskar Chakrabortidean of global business at Fletcher Business School at Tufts University and president of Digital Planet, who conducted the analysis.
This data may add to the challenges Musk faces as he attempts to turnaround the company, which he has burdened with debt. Advertisers provide the bulk of Twitter’s revenue, but some have said in recent weeks that they will cut or pause spending until they learn more about any changes to the platform’s content policies. “Advertisers cannot invest their money on platforms where there are no comprehensive hate speech and disinformation policies in place and consistently enforced,” says Lou Paskalisan accomplished advertising executive who was formerly president of MMA Global, a marketing trade group.
The Tufts analysis does not indicate whether the rise in hate speech stems from specific changes Musk made after acquiring Twitter for $44 million last month. While he initially claimed that the company’s policy would not change, he also laid off thousands of staff and contractors, reducing the resources Twitter could devote to police content. In some countries where the platform is popular, such as Brazil, activists and researchers who track disinformation say there is no one left on Twitter to respond to their warnings and requests.