INVESTIGATION – Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has already changed the social network

“Oh surprise, my account has been reactivated. Good evening friends,” Silvano Trotta, a popular figure in the anti-vaccine movement, tweeted on December 16, 2022. In March 2021, his account was suspended for violating the Covid-19 disinformation rules. But after more than a year away from the social network, the Alsatian entrepreneur announces his triumphant return. He has since shared his approximations and, in some cases, false information again with over 90,000 followers.

The transformation of Twitter into a space of almost absolute freedom of expression was made possible thanks to the arrival of Elon Musk, an American billionaire, Tesla boss, co-founder of Ebay and an avid user of the social network. Having bought it at the end of 2022 for a tidy sum of $ 44 billion, he caused a real earthquake, the first consequences of which are already visible.

An open door to disinformation

As soon as he took over as head of Twitter, Elon Musk made a radical decision. It restores thousands of accounts previously banned for violating platform rules. According to platformer’s dedicated newsletter, 62,000 accounts with over 10,000 followers are back on Twitter. It is actually difficult to measure the exact number of these reactivations, but observers have seen the return of ambiguous personalities. Among them is influencer Andrew Tate, who proclaims himself a misogynist. Her account was suspended in 2017 for tweeting that “women should be held accountable” if someone was sexually assaulted. A few days ago, American Nick Fuentes, a prominent white supremacist and neo-Nazi across the Atlantic, was also able to regain control of his account. A former Trump supporter and now campaign manager for Kanye West in the 2024 presidential election, he recently said that Adolf Hitler was “really cool.” However, he was re-suspended just 24 hours after his return after sharing an image illustrating what he said was a Jewish media conspiracy.

In France, the wave of account reactivation seems less important. But this does not prevent the fact that some disinformation workers have already been noticed. So, Silvano Trotta posted a tweet in which he distorts the findings of the Australian health authorities, mistakenly believing that vaccination will increase the risk of hospitalization. This tweet, although it was criticized, received thousands of reposts, likes and almost 190,000 views.

“These recovered accounts threaten to increase the amount of misinformation,” worries China Labbe, European editor at NewsGuard. First, because of what they are going to broadcast, and also because of the signal they send to other players who might be tempted to join the platform, seeing it as a haven of absolute freedom of expression.” For Tristan Mendez France, digital educator and conspiracy observatory staffer, “they were toxic when they were suspended. And today they are returning with the same capital on favorable soil for them.

To quantify the impact of renewed disinformation, NewsGuard studied the activity of Twitter accounts associated with two French-language disinformation sites a month after Elon Musk took over Twitter. In a confidential briefing that Radio France’s investigative department had access to, the organization noted a 36 percent increase in engagement caused by these questionable tweets (in other words, likes, posts and comments) compared to the period before the takeover: “This is a long-term phenomenon, clarifies Chine Labbe. We are seeing an increase in the popularity of content from these attackers.”

“If you pay, they see you”

When he takes over the reins of Twitter, the billionaire also decides to completely overhaul the platform’s certification system. Until now, Twitter has given away a blue certification badge for free. This made it possible to authenticate the identity of the user and make it possible to assess, even imperfectly, the seriousness of his profile. But now, in several countries, Twitter offers a simple subscription to receive this sesame on the “Twitter Blue” site. For eight dollars a month, any user of the platform can show this badge, which offers them an algorithmic bonus, which means better visibility, regardless of the severity of the published information. “Elon Musk killed the tablet, which allowed you to navigate more or less by the reliability of information,” says Tristan Mendez France. Today, his idea is to say: “If you pay, you are seen.” Regardless of your experience and legitimacy.

Indeed, French-language conspiracy site Les DeQodeurs, inspired by the American QAnnon movement, now sports a blue certification badge on its Twitter account. Since the Twitter Blue subscription is not yet available in France, he explains that he contacted a Canadian team member to get the sesame seeds. “Before, we didn’t have the right. It could only be rhetorical watchdogs,” reads one of their tweets.

Fall of moderation

The arrival of Elon Musk at the head of Twitter also signals the beginning of a wave of mass layoffs. On November 4, 2022, he fired 50% of Twitter employees worldwide, or 4,000 people. This drastically reduces the trust and security team responsible for the security of users on the platform. Also leaving was the Human Rights team, whose task it was to ensure that the platform complied with international standards in this area, especially those of the United Nations. Content moderators will also suffer. Prior to the takeover, Twitter already had fewer than 2,000 worldwide, corresponding to 500 million tweets per day.

This purge worries associations who are wondering how Twitter can reasonably moderate hate content and disinformation. Especially since the latest figures cited by the press across the Atlantic show a further reduction in the workforce. Only 1,300 people are still active on Twitter. According to internal documents seen by the American channel CNBC, there will be 550 engineers, and the Trust and Safety team will be reduced to 20 people. Elon Musk denied these figures in a series of tweets, stating that “several hundred people are still working on user security.” But the trend is clearly to reduce the workforce, because he believes that the moderation, which is already done with the help of algorithms, could do without the human eye.

For her part, Melissa Engle, a former Twitter engineer who worked on these moderation algorithms, however, doubts the effectiveness of this automation: “Algorithms cannot see everything,” testifies an ex-employee. They constantly skip problematic tweets and fail to see the nuances. That’s why we also need people.”

Current litigation

In the US, several former Twitter employees have decided to file a complaint against their former company. In a class action lawsuit filed at the end of November, they accuse Twitter of failing to meet a legal deadline before they were fired and of failing to pay compensation due to them. “I wasn’t ready to fight for it. I wanted to move on,” testifies Emmanuel Cornet, a Twitter licensed engineer who joined the class action lawsuit. But I have colleagues who were ready. I think they do it to show that nothing can be done with impunity.” The recent decision removed the ability for these former employees to file a class action lawsuit, but it does allow them to continue their actions each on their own side. Since then, more than 500 people have decided to challenge the compensation they have received, according to a lawyer representing them.

Empty offices in Europe

From Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco to its subsidiaries in Rio, Singapore or Accra, no one has been spared by this massive wave of layoffs. In Europe, in November 2022, employees of offices in Brussels stopped working. However, the six employees of this Belgian branch were an important link to the European institutions. At the same time, Damien Viel, who until now was in charge of Twitter France in Paris, announced that he would no longer work for the company. “This is the end!” tweet of the former number one on Twitter in France. “Pride, honor and mission accomplished. Goodbye #twitterfrance. What an adventure! What a team! What meetings! Thank you all for these 7 incredible and intense years.” At this stage, it is difficult to say what fate awaits about thirty employees based in Paris. But the offices in the capital, where we went, seem deserted. And the messages sent to the American headquarters went unheeded.

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, USA on November 18, 2022

Typhoon Coskun / Anadolu Agency

This silence is all the more troubling given that some media outlets have been in regular contact with the platforms, in part to combat disinformation. Agence France Presse (AFP), for example, discussed a fact-checking project in Latin America with Twitter. The decision on this partnership was made shortly before the arrival of Elon Musk. But since then no more news. “Some of the teams we were able to communicate with are no longer showing up,” said Julie Sharpentra, deputy chief editor of AFP’s Digital Investigation Unit. For now, we remain in the dark about what Twitter wants to do.

Leak from advertisers

This succession of decisions has also tarnished the reputation of social networks. This is evidenced by a 40% drop in income. Worried about the turn of events, 500 advertisers said they were suspending their partnership with the platform. A blow to a social network that has always been in short supply since its inception in 2006. Advertising revenue is its main source of funding. “This is a signal that there is a movement in the industry towards better moderation, towards more transparency from those who manage our freedom of expression on social platforms today,” said Julie Owono, executive director of the NGO Internet Sans Frontières. . But this move is not currently being followed by Twitter, which is both worrying and regrettable for the platform.

Possibly very bad, but above all very problematic in the near future, at least in the European market. Because the Digital Services Act (DSA) will gradually apply by next year. This new legislation provides for mandatory obligations that will apply to all digital platforms, including Twitter. Commitments of moderation, resources and transparency, which will be closely monitored by the European Commission. “If platforms neglect their duties, continue to publish offensive content, prevent the authorities from gaining access to their algorithms, or make money from publications that fall under the law… Then the sanction will fall,” warns Vice President Vera Yurova. European Commission responsible for values ​​and transparency. It remains to be seen what the sanctions are. The maximum fine under the DSA is 6% of the annual global turnover of the sanctioned company. But will the disassembly go that far? Tentative response by summer 2023, when the DSA is due to go into effect for Twitter.


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