Elon Musk reactivated Donald Trump’s Twitter account last weekend, reversing a ban issued in January 2021 after his posts were deemed to have incited violence at the United States Capitol. Trump has not resumed using his account, but social media researchers have warned for months that his return could lead to a wave of division and misinformation on 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 from Tufts University digital planet The group tracked hate speech on Twitter before and after Musk took over the company in late October. To do this, they used a data feed provided by the platform, known as 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 Twitter toxicity around the US midterm elections.
To study how Musk’s ownership changed Twitter, researchers scoured tweets posted between March 1 and November 13 this year, collecting the 20 most popular – determined by a combination of followers, likes and retweets. – with keywords that may indicate anti-LGBTQ+, racist or anti-Semitic intent. They then looked at the language of these tweets in each of the three categories and tried to judge their true intent.
During the months leading up to Musk’s takeover, researchers estimated that only one tweet on all three top 20 lists was actually hateful, in this case against Jews. Others either quote another person’s hate speech or use the relevant keywords in a non-hate way.
In the weeks since Musk took over Twitter, the same analysis found that hateful tweets have become much more prominent among the most popular tweets with potentially toxic language. For tweets using words associated with anti-LGBTQ+ or anti-Semitic messages, seven of the top 20 messages in each category were now hateful. For popular tweets using potentially racist language, one of the top 20 was deemed to be hate speech.
“Twitter toxicity has dramatically increased the number of post-Musk entries in this building,” says Bhaskar Chakravortidean of global affairs at Fletcher Business School at Tufts University and president of Digital Planet, which conducted the analysis.
This data could add to the challenges Musk faces as he tries to turn around the company, which he has put into debt. Advertisers provide the majority of Twitter’s revenue, but some have said in recent weeks that they will cut or suspend spending until they know more about changes to the platform’s content policies. “Advertisers cannot invest their money on platforms where comprehensive policies on hate speech and disinformation are not in place and consistently enforced,” says Lou Paskalisa longtime advertising executive who was previously president of MMA Global, a marketing business group.
Tufts’ analysis does not indicate whether the increase in hate speech stems from specific changes made by Musk after he acquired Twitter for $44 million last month. Although he initially claimed that company policies would not change, he also laid off thousands of employees and contractors, cutting into the resources Twitter could bring to police content. In some countries where the platform is popular, such as Brazil, activists and researchers who track disinformation say there are nobody on twitter anymore to respond to their warnings and requests.