Posted on: 07.12.2022

Truth, trolls and takeovers: what does our new ‘Chief Twit’ mean for advertisers?

The story so far

Back in April of this year, billionaire businessman and investor Elon Musk proposed a multi-billion dollar takeover of the social media platform Twitter – an offer that was later accepted by the company.

After a few messy months of back and forth between the two, a process that included lawsuits, counter lawsuits – and some pretty revealing text messages – Musk finally completed the acquisition at the end of October, forewarning users (in fittingly self-referential fashion) via a series of tweets.

Since then, the twittersphere has descended into division and chaos; the Musk fandom are keen to voice their support, whilst many celebrities and ordinary users have chosen to leave the platform altogether.

It seems that the unsettled months of wavering behind the takeover deal have set an uncertain precedent for the platform’s future. There have been changes to funding models, moderation policies, terms of use and to personnel. Many top execs lost positions overnight, and remaining colleagues have been left in the dark as to where the company is headed. Understandably, the process has also resulted in a flurry of voluntary departures too, and current estimates are suggesting that around 50% of the global workforce is no longer on the payroll.

What Musk wants

This increased level of noise points us to a question clouded in ambiguity: what is it exactly that Musk wants from this takeover?

For starters, there seems to be a focus on how the flow of content works and on content moderation. Twitter can often act as a microcosm for the rest of social media. Like many other social network sites, it keeps us engaged by rewarding us with the information we like to interact with. It can help to facilitate environments where the only other views we see are ones that match our own. Social media has shown that we’re predisposed to arguments that flirt with our preconceptions, and that’s resulted in the narrowed echo chambers we’ve seen emerge in various corners of the internet.

Musk wants to challenge this. He’s repeatedly stated the opinion that, of all the social networking sites available, Twitter has the most potential to represent a unique, digital town square; a domain of democracy and debate, where some of humanity’s most pressing, universal issues can be openly hashed out, turned over and scrutinised. For Musk’s ideal platform to come into existence, we just need to decide how much the belt around content moderation needs to be unbuckled. Critics point to Musk’s approach as less ‘free speech Utopia’ and more a political project on behalf of a class of hyper-Libertarian, extreme-capitalist tech billionaires intent on undermining, wresting power from, the established democracies which currently try to contain them.
Understandably, there have been concerns that increased tolerance for ‘free’ debate will lead to a sharp increase in fake news and in hate speech – something we’re already seeing as the rules begin to loosen.

The increase in false information has even been exemplified by Elon himself. Just days after the takeover, Musk debated a tweet from former presidential candidate Hilary Clinton on the Pelosi hammer attack, by citing a news outlet that’s notorious for publishing fake news. The tweet was later deleted, but not before reaching 100 Million plus of Musk’s followers.

We’ve already seen the impact on misinformation that the new changes have started to have too. The proposed idea for users to be able to pay for a blue verification check saw an immediate rise in fake, parodying accounts, as it essentially became very easy for anyone to become… anyone! With Twitter now backtracking on the decision, it’s clear to see how Musk’s often impulsive decisions can lead to widespread confusion.

The open, accessible community he’s supposedly looking to build is surely an important tool. But, the project will be marked by one major risk:

– Musk is a multi-billionaire. And one with an unconstrained track record.

If we were to take a look at some of his other business ventures, we’d likely come away with the understanding that the new media mogul’s motto would be to never let them know your next move. Originally setup as a subsidiary of SpaceX, he founded tunnel construction service The Boring Company, to create intra-city transit systems and solve complex, modern traffic problems. Combine this with Space X’s ambitious schemes to colonise Mars, and Neauralink’s development of brain-to-computer interfaces, and it becomes clear that Musk’s thinking lies somewhere in the realm between science fiction and farsight. Which is exactly what makes this latest deal so unnerving; the fact that Musk has never worked on a company that’s so closely connected to everyday, public life.

The very public nature of this takeover has propelled the cult of personality around his image even further into the stratosphere, solidifying Musks’ celebrity status, and very much reaffirming his self-view as the main character in this sci-fi narrative. Whilst Musk may say he’s bought the platform for the far-reaching good of humanity, we can’t underestimate the role of ego.

What about brands?

As Musk sparks a loss of confidence in the platform, what will it mean for brands and trust?

The relationship between Twitter and advertisers has always been mutually beneficial. Brands have long since been central to Twitter’s long term operating model, just as Twitter has been central to many large-scale branding strategies. The interactive, conversational nature of the platform meant that it became the go-to place for brands to respond to and interact with their customers. But with change coming faster than ever, and the platform’s credibility now up in the air, brands are choosing to go elsewhere.

The round of celebrities choosing to ditch Twitter has caused a ripple effect, and we’ve already seen the first departure of a big name brand with Balenciaga’s exit. The departures come after large scale media buyers are warning advertisers of the increased risk, and other major players, such as Audi and Volkswagen, have suspended advertising on the platform. Global media players Omnicrom and IPG have advised clients to halt advertising on the platform and Group M, the world’s largest advertising agency, have since said that buying adverts on Twitter should now be considered a high-risk act. Group M have gone on to state that for Twitter to shed the high risk label, the company would need to at least address the following:

Instate new privacy and trust executives
Improve openness around community guidelines and around issues that affect brand safety
Make a clear dedication to fair content moderation

Whilst Musk has previously poked fun at advertisers, whilst blaming the crisis on ‘woke activists’, any continuation of the exodus will have a huge effect on the company. In previous years, advertising has reflected an estimated 90% of the platform’s income.

Twitter cannot afford to lose such a fundamental income stream, so it’s hard to say how they’ll respond to such a loss. Very real concerns about user’s privacy and information have opened up, with Yoel Roth, the Head of Trust and Safety, resigning last week. There’s a possibility that previous data harvested by Twitter could be used to make targeting more precise. This could mean an increased openness around users’ browsing habits and financial information, and would be valuable of course, for advertisers. But such transparency starts to border on an information based dystopia, with consequences for both users and brands that are yet to be seen.

The platform won’t be free from any legal impositions around data, even as a privately owned company. But Musk clearly knows how to profit from human behaviour, and the idea of him bending the rules for financial gain isn’t one that should be off of the table.

Twitter used to be a place for users to keep up to date with verified, reliable information from verified, reliable sources, making it an obvious choice for brand promotion. With Musk changing the very core of what the platform is about, Twitter has already lost its identity. A site where fake tweets have affected real world valuations doesn’t really reflect a relevant, reliable go-to for advertisers. And even if Twitter were to make a radical reshift and get back on track, there’s absolutely no guarantee that brands will see the need to return.

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