Activists fearing soon-to-be Twitter King Elon Musk may turn the platform into a “megaphone to extremists,” are calling on the site’s biggest moneymen to keep the ship afloat.
On Tuesday a group of over 25 digital activist and advocacy groups led by Accountable Tech, Media Matters, and UltraViolet issued a public letter calling on Twitter’s top advertisers to commit to a set of “non-negotiable” content standards that would serve as prerequisites for them doing business with the site. If the advertisers agree, Musk would theoretically have to choose between buffing noxious content and billions in juicy ad revenue.
The organisations want Twitter’s advertisers to ensure controversial banned accounts of political and public figures removed for “egregious violations of Twitter Rules” (that means you, @realdonaldtrump) stay banned under the new leadership. Next, the letter addresses Musk’s recent musing around an “open source” Twitter’s algorithm and responded by saying attempts to increase algorithmic transparency should simultaneously come with added protections to ensure bad actors don’t manipulate the platform. Additionally, the groups write, Twitter should seek the council of privacy experts with a history of considering the implications of tech on “communities that are discriminated against in speaking truth to power.”
Gizmodo spoke to Accountable Tech Co-Founder and Executive Director Nicole Gill who said they and their partners realised advertisers represented the single best point of leverage to safeguard certain Twitter policies.
“That is the sole source of funding for Twitter currently,” Gill said. “Elon has repeatedly said he does not care about the economics of Twitter but the way this deal is structured Twitter has to make money.” If that doesn’t happen, Musk may be forced to sell more Twitter stock or risk having loans called in.
“He’s put himself in a pretty precarious position,” Gill added. “The revenues actually do matter. The markets will decide the fate of his ownership here.”
Co-signatories to the letter didn’t shy away from spelling out the potential threats they see stemming from Musk attempts to acquire Twitter for nearly $US44 ($61) billion.
“Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter will further toxify our information ecosystem and be a direct threat to public safety, especially among those already most vulnerable and marginalised,” the groups write. As they see it, Musk’s previous behaviour and cryptic statements about “free speech” leads them to believe he intends to dismantle moderation safeguards, amplify harmful content and implement a vision that could “silence and endanger marginalised communities, and tear at the fraying fabric of democracy.” Not exactly subtle.
While the letter acknowledges Twitter’s numerous, often nausea inducing faults, it also praises the company for acting as a “guidepost” for other firms on certain issues like transparency and research access. The activists call on advertisers to both act as stalwart against a potential Musk meltdown as well as acting to preserve elements of the platform currently working…more of less
“Under Musk’s management, Twitter risks becoming a cesspool of misinformation, with your brand attached, polluting our information ecosystem in a time where trust in institutions and news media is already at an all-time low,” they said. “Your ad dollars can either fund Musk’s vanity project or hold him to account. We call on you to demand Musk uphold these basic standards of community trust and safety, and to pull your advertising spending from Twitter if they are not.”
Musk Claps Back
The activists managed to gain the attention of the Troll King himself on Tuesday. In a quote tweet of a CNN article covering the letter, Musk — who legal experts claim may have allegedly made off with $US156 ($217) million for violating securities laws earlier this year — tried to question the legitimacy of the organisations involved.
“Who funds these organisations that want to control your access to information? Let’s investigate …” Musk wrote. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Sunlight is the best disinfectant— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 3, 2022
When Gizmodo asked Gill from Accountable Tech to comment on the Musk’s mid-day tweet, she said it showed Musk didn’t appear willing to agree to the safeguards they and the other organisations had outlined.
“He can’t agree that those safeguards will be kept in place,” Gill said. “He’d rather attack a small advocacy nonprofit that’s just asking questions. I think that shows your everything you need to know about Elon and his ego that’s driving his purchase here.
Twitter, meanwhile, didn’t immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment but did try to reassure presumably spooked advertisers in an investor filing earlier this week.
“We have no planned changes to our commitment to brand safety and will continue to lead in products that protect, policies that lead, and partnerships that matter,” the company said. On the questions of how its new owner takeover could transform Twitter business operations though, the company said it “cannot speculate on changes Elon Musk may make post closing.”
Recent reporting from The Financial Times suggests officials at Twitter are busy putting out fires and have their hands full trying to convince advertisers not to leave the platform. To put it plainly, Coca-Cola’s not exactly jazzed at the idea of having their news CokeZero ad appears alongside neo-Nazi posts calling for genocide.
Gill pointed to a handful of more “family friendly” brands with large twitter ad presences that may be amongst the most likely to balk at any madness, like Kraft, Nestle, and Coca-Cola.
“I don’t think companies like that are willing to risk the blowback they might get.”
An exodus of advertisers away from Twitter’s platform, however unlikely, could prove disastrous for the company’s bottom line. Like most other “free” internet services, Twitter’s highly dependent on advertising to pay the bills and keep the cesspools flowing. To put in perspective how dependent Twitter is on ads, last year, advertising services accounted for a whopping 88% of Twitter’s $US5.08 ($7) billion in revenue. Twitter’s advertising revenue is on the rise as well. In the final quarter of 2021, the company reported a 22% year over year increase in advertising revenue. Ads are Twitter’s oil.
That continued advertiser revenue may run up against Musk’s vision for the company’s future. Since he first started hoarding large swaths of Twitter’s shares last month, Musk has repeatedly given interviews and published tweets many have interpreted as efforts to court favour with right-wing users who’ve come to disdain the platform. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, over half (51%) of Republican voters said they didn’t feel like they could properly express themselves online. Just 19% of Democrats agreed with that sentiment.
Content moderation-free sites like the one the letter’s author’s imagine may emerge under Musk’s reign already exist and they’re called Gab, Parler, and 8Chan. None of those companies, it’s worth noting, are anywhere near Twitter’s apparent $US44 ($61) billion dollar valuation. Unless Musk has some plan to radically alter Twitter’s business model overnight he may really have no choice but to colour within the likes of advertiser palatability.
“We have just a handful of tech billionaires CEOs that have this much unchecked power over the global discourse and that really is what’s the matter here,” Gill said. “That amount of unchecked power over our global discourse is really an existential threat to Democracy.”
Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.