Social media hasn’t been around for all that long, but already, there’s a hefty amount of research on it. Existing research suggests that Twitter’s new approach is likely to do well at first but then spiral into a vicious cycle of unmoderated toxicity.
If you use Twitter even semi-regularly, you probably know what’s going on. If you have no idea (lucky you), here’s a brief rundown. The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, owner of Tesla and SpaceX, purchased Twitter. He didn’t seem to want to buy it, but he made an offer and if he backed out, he would have had to pay billions in charges. So he bought it, and he’s changing it massively. For starters, he axed half of Twitter’s workforce and wants to lay off even more people. He also turned the website’s moderation policy on its head, annoyed many core users, and reinstated several controversial figures that had been previously banned from the platform, including former US president Donald Trump.
Musk has bragged that his approach is working because the website is seeing record traffic. We don’t really know if it’s true, but even if it is, it’s not necessarily a good thing.
Musk seems to be taking the ‘bad publicity is still publicity’ approach to the extreme, but he seems to be falling into a famous trap of social media: toxicity drives increased social media use, engagement, and ad sales — but toxicity is contagious and kills social media websites in the long run.
For instance, a study from researchers at Exeter University in the UK analyzed how labeling toxic content to users affected engagement on several social media platforms.
“Lowering exposure to toxicity reduced content consumption on Facebook by 23% relative to the mean. We also report a 9.2% drop in ad consumption on Twitter (relative to the mean), where this metric is available. Additionally, the intervention reduced the average toxicity of content posted by users on Facebook and Twitter, evidence of toxicity being contagious.”
“Taken together, our results suggest a trade-off faced by platforms: they can curb users’ toxicity at the expense of their content consumption.”
Herein lies the problem that Twitter is facing. It’s easy to see the increased toxicity in recent days, and while that may lead to increased engagement, it spells bad news long-term.
This is far from the only study to come up with this conclusion.
Another study published in Science also confirmed that moral outrage drives increased social media use, and the more extreme a network becomes, the more likely it is for people to express outrage. A preprint study also concluded that negative social feelings have severe negative consequences for social networks.
“Our analysis shows that negative mobilizations have important long-term adverse effects, leading to processes of “colonization”, where ill-behaved users come to dominate the target community,” the prepint read.
It’s important to keep in mind that all these studies have important limitations. For instance, one such limitation comes in how ‘toxicity’ or negativity are defined. Some studies define it as incivility that includes name-calling, aspersion, lying, vulgarity, and pejorative remarks, while others emphasize political incivility or rudeness. Another limitation comes from the indirect ways through which researchers often study social media networks (as they rarely, if ever have access to things like user logs and get to see the entire picture). But even so, with all these limitations, the science seems to be suggesting that under its new ownership, Twitter is on a bad trajectory.
There’s another problem: toxic engagement seems to breed more toxicity.
Contagiousness and chaos
Of course, this is all relatively new. It’s only been a few weeks since Musk formally became Twitter’s owner (and celebrated with a sink), so it’s still early days. Understandably, Musk’s changes have made waves, but maybe after these waves calm down a bit, so too will the mood on Twitter.
But it doesn’t seem to really work that way. If the discourse on social networks becomes toxic, people tend to also become toxic themselves. Social networks tend to exhibit something called “emotion contagion”, which is pretty much what it says — on social networks, emotions are contagious. But once a community becomes toxic, it tends to stay toxic. Something similar happens for misinformation: if something is repeated multiple times, it starts to seem true, regardless of whether it’s actually true or not. So the ongoing events might set Twitter on a spiraling path from which it’s hard to escape.
The good news is that there are ways to reduce toxicity: moderation, clear and transparent policies, removal of content, as well as temporary and permanent bans could work. But the bad news is that this is the opposite of what Musk seems to be doing with Twitter right now.
Musk has branded himself as an advocate of free speech, noting that he is against censoring anything other than what directly goes against the law. He’s also opted against bans, reinstating controversial figures like former president Donald Trump, Jordan Peterson, and Kanye West, who had been banned after an antisemitic rant in which he said he was “going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”
Meanwhile, Musk’s plan of charging people to get verified tags backfired spectacularly and caused costly confusion when a verified but fake Twitter account impersonated pharma giant Eli Lilly and started saying it will give insulin away for free — causing a significant dive in the company’s stock value. Similar incidents rocked Twitter after a slew of fake accounts took advantage of the new verification policy to crack jokes.
Behind the scenes, Twitter also doesn’t seem to be doing so well. Musk reportedly gave remaining employees a choice to adhere to a new draconian work schedule or leave — and many chose the latter.
Whether you use it or not, and whether you care about it or not, Twitter has a big impact on the world. Like all major social media platforms, it plays an important role in society, and Twitter in particular is the world’s digital public square. If it goes away, or if it is irredeemably tainted, the international flow of information will be severely disrupted.
“Twitter vs not Twitter isn’t a simple binary, particularly not for news journalism. The 24 hour global connectivity has changed almost everything about workflows in newsrooms and even for freelance journalists,” said Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, a series of tweets Friday. “What replaces it, or what Twitter becomes now with an owner expressly hostile to and ignorant of the business of daily reporting, is really unsure.”
There is no replacement for Twitter either. Other big social platforms like Instagram or TikTok have a completely different profile, while other community-based networks like Mastodon have a different organization and are not nearly as popular as Twitter. None of these apps seem able to fill in Twitter’s role.
It’s hard to foresee what will happen, but one thing’s for sure: we’re witnessing internet history. Let’s hope for the best.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.