Despite Twitter’s repeated claims that hate speech and abuse, and thus negative brand exposure risk, has reduced since Elon Musk took over at the app, the signs coming out of Twitter HQ continue to suggest the opposite.
This week, Twitter lost not one but two executives that had been in charge of trust and safety at the platform, both of whom had been vocal supporters of Elon’s ‘free speech’ reformation. The departures came as a result of Musk overruling of the Twitter team’s decision to restrict the promotion of a documentary about gender transition, and the emerging ‘gender ideology movement’.
As per various reports, Twitter had initially offered to host an exclusive premiere of the documentary, titled ‘What is a Woman?’, which would include paid promotion of the project. But after reviewing the content of the video, Twitter’s trust and safety execs opted to back away from the deal, due to concerns that it could be viewed as hate speech based, specifically, on its content around misgendering.
Elon Musk has been a vocal critic of gender affirmation, and in particular, of gender transition surgery for youngsters. And after he was directly questioned about Twitter’s decision to distance itself from the documentary, Musk then stepped in to overrule the team’s approach, and implement more lax rules around the same.
Commenting & deliberate sharing will be allowed. Sensitive content just won’t be pushed to people unless they ask for it or a friend sends it to them.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 2, 2023
Not only that, but Musk also retweeted the documentary to his 141 million followers, and pinned it to the top of his profile for maximum exposure.
The back and forth seemingly caused a significant rift within Twitter’s brand safety team, and both Ella Irwin, the head of trust and safety at the platform, and AJ Brown, the chief of brand safety, have since both left the company.
Irwin, in particular, had become a key spokeperson for Twitter 2.0, as Musk’s changes prompted angst and concern among ad partners. Irwin was tasked with reassuring brands, and maintaining advertiser trust – but with Twitter ad revenue declining by 50% since the takeover, clearly, Irwin was already facing an uphill battle.
As Musk continues to reform the rules based on his own personal ideology, while also overseeing the reinstatement of former users that had been banned for spreading hate speech, misinformation, and worse, the challenge before Twitter’s brand safety team clearly remains significant, and these latest departures will do little to calm already concerned organizations.
Add to this the fact that Twitter is now forcing brands to pay for Twitter Blue to even advertise in the app, and it does seem like a hard sell, so it’s no big surprise to see even more Twitter execs depart.
So what does that mean for brand safety on the platform?
Well, it’s clearly not a good thing. Both Irwin and Brown were experienced operators, that had been with Twitter for some time, and the loss of their expertise will be felt as the company continues to be re-shaped in Musk’s image.
Then again, with new Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino coming in shortly, maybe a shake-up was on the cards either way – though this will also add to Yaccarino’s challenge in reassuring ad partners that Musk’s new way forward for the app is a positive step, and will not increase the risk of negative exposure.
The available evidence around the rise, or not, of hate speech in the app remains inconclusive, with external reports suggesting that hate speech is on the rise via tweet, while Musk and his team say that it’s reduced. A lot of that comes down to the methodology applied - but the fact that Twitter keeps losing the staff in charge of representing it on this element does seem to indicate that even they are not confident that it’s taking the right action on this front.
Really, each brand will have to make its own decision on the potential risks. But the indicators, I would say, are not great, depending on your view of Elon’s approach.