Twitter, Toxicity, and Turmoil

By: Harshal Agrawal

Suvanshi Agarwal

Toxicity has become a pressing concern in the realm of online communication, posing significant challenges to individuals, communities, and platforms alike.

While the rise of social media platforms has facilitated the rapid dissemination of ideas and opinions, it has also provided a breeding ground for hate speech to flourish. Twitter, one of the leading social media platforms, has not been immune to this issue. 

Elon Musk initiated the acquisition of American social media company Twitter, Inc. on April 14, 2022, and concluded it on October 27, 2022. Since then, Twitter has emerged as the most widely discussed social media platform in recent months.

Musker is a popular social networking and microblogging service, and under the ownership of Elon Musk, has become a subject of intense scrutiny and controversy, with many questioning whether the platform has become more toxic. This has been further fueled by the significant number of advertisers pulling out of Twitter, citing concerns over the platform’s increasingly toxic environment.

Through this article, we have attempted to answer the same question: Has the toxicity on Twitter increased since its acquisition by Musk? And if yes, how has that impacted its revenue?

In order to analyze the same, we:
1. Assessed the toxicity level of tweets by scraping Twitter through two methods: randomization and keyword selection. The detailed methodology will be discussed in the upcoming section.
2. Reviewed the changes in moderation policy, reinstating previously banned accounts, and similar changes that may have contributed to a more hostile environment.
3. Studied the implications of the change in ‘toxicity’ on revenue.
4. And lastly, weighed the impact of Threads on Twitter’s user base and revenue.

In the following sections, we will discuss the research methodology employed, and present the results and implications of our study.

The Twitter Toxicity Dilemma: Is Twitter a More Toxic Place Now than Ever Before?

Some studies allege an increase in hate speech on Twitter post the Elon Musk acquisition. However, Musk not only refutes these claims but asserts that Twitter has become a less toxic place.

This dilemma prompted us to develop our own understanding of the changing dynamics of toxicity at Twitter and answer the question: Has toxicity changed on Twitter since Elon Musk’s takeover of the social media platform?

Has Toxicity of Tweets Changed on Twitter since Elon Musk’s Takeover of the Social Media Platform?

To uncover the answers to our fundamental question and verify the assertions put forth by Twitter CEO Elon Musk, we embarked on an exhaustive analysis employing a meticulously curated dataset. Our approach involves examining the data from two different perspectives.
In both approaches, we used a dataset that contained 12 months of data. These months cover six months before the acquisition, six months post the acquisition including the month of the acquisition, i.e., October 2022.

Table 1: Months considered for scraping tweets

 

The data was collected using python and snscraper (python lib: snscrape.modules.twitter) for Twitter data scraping. After scraping the tweets (different methodologies were employed for randomization and select keyword methods), we proceeded with our analysis by utilizing a pre-trained BERT model called ‘detoxify’ to calculate the score for the label toxicity. All the tweets with a toxicity score greater than or equal to 0.99 are labelled as ‘Hate Tweets’.

1. Randomization: We scraped a random sample of tweets pre-Musk acquisition and post-Musk acquisition

Every second, on average, around 3000 English-language tweets are tweeted on Twitter. For our analysis, we used a dataset that contained randomized tweets in the English language spanning over 12 months. It contained approximately 7,000 tweets per month (10 tweets every hour of every day). That’s about 0.0001% of the whole Twitter Database.

Result:

 

Graph 1 (left): Total number of tweets
Graph 2(right): Total number of hate tweets. It shows that hate speech has not increased in the randomized set.

2. Select Keywords: We scraped tweets with carefully selected ‘toxic’ keywords, ensuring that our dataset captured relevant tweets

In our secondary analysis, we utilized a dataset consisting of tweets with specific keywords that were scraped over a span of the above-specified 12 months. Our focus was on capturing tweets containing specific keywords, as listed below:

1. Nig
2. Fag
3. Libtard
4. Tranny
5. Retard

These keywords were chosen after thorough research in many scholarly articles. These keywords represent different discriminated groups, like the black community, LGBTQ+, disabled citizens etc. against whom hate/toxicity is common. The scraping process involved extracting tweets from Twitter based on the selected keywords. The tweets were collected and stored for analysis.

Result:

Graph 3 (left): Total number of tweets pre and post Elon. It can be observed that the total tweets pre and post-Musk acquisition have almost been equal.
Graph 4 (right): Number of hate tweets (out of the Total Tweets in the left graph) pre and post Elon.

No blanket increase in toxic tweets on Twitter since Musk

Our analysis concludes that the volume of hate speech has not increased post-Musk’s acquisition. However, it is worth noting that toxic content can manifest in various forms beyond written text, such as pictures and videos. While our scrape limits our analysis to only written tweets, we have not taken into account the toxicity spread through tweets that are in the form of pictures/videos.

Twitter’s Turbulent Journey: Unveiling the Disruptive Changes that Shook the Platform

Musk’s leadership style has not brought glory to Twitter as of now; rather, Twitter is shattering due to its own actions. His erratic decisions on content moderation and layoffs are being questioned by many.

The major changes can be condensed into five major points:

1. Twitter’s changed rules on content moderation

  • Musk closed the trust and safety council of Twitter and laid off all the workers in this division. The month of December at Twitter was rather uncertain for people working in allied divisions of Twitter. With its disbandment, the absence of a dedicated body focused on these matters could create challenges in effectively combating hate speech and related issues.
  • In January, Twitter also quietly banned access to its API for free, citing that it violated ‘some’ long standing rules. The Twitter API provides broad access to public Twitter data and lets a user extract this data for further research purposes.
  •  April 2023 witnessed significant developments in content moderation. Notably, NPR departed from the platform due to Elon Musk’s interference with their account.
  • Subsequently, Twitter quietly changed its policy concerning misgendering transgender individuals in the subsequent months, adding on to the problem of toxicity. This change has made Twitter more hostile toward LGBTQ+ individuals.

2. Reinstating accounts that promote hate

Musk has had a lax approach in controlling hate and toxic speech — such as allowing Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and other controversial figures back on the platform in the name of free speech.

 

Jordan Peterson, one of the reinstated accounts, had earlier been banned because of his tweet targeting transgenders.

Andrew was allowed on Twitter, and he has been spreading negativity towards women since he is back.

3. Trust in Elon Musk (with respect to his erratic lay-offs) and his overall personality as a Republican.

Musk is infamous for saying ‘problematic’ things.

This is evident as concerns arise among companies when considering the association with Elon Musk himself due to his ongoing pattern of posting offensive tweets.

 

Revenue Rumble: Is Twitter’s Revenue Taking a Hit with Revamped Rules and Restored Accounts?

Graph 5: Distribution of Total and Advertising Revenue over the past 4 years.[1]

 It is clear from graph 5 that Twitter heavily relies on advertising revenue, which constitutes around 90% of its total revenue. However, the relationship between Twitter and advertisers has been instable since October. Many major advertisers drastically reduced their spending on the platform, leading to a substantial impact on Twitter’s revenue. Many of these advertisers like General Motors, United Airlines and more cited toxicity as one of their reasons.

 

[1] Data from 10K – reports and ‘23 prediction by Insider Intelligence, refer to appendix point 5

  • Are Threads A Threat?

Meta has launched Threads, a new text-based app to rival Twitter. The move is a bold attempt to lure users away from its floundering competitor with a near-clone of the platform. 

In October of the previous year, Twitter users watched with a sense of helplessness as Elon Musk assumed the role of CEO.

Through the integration of Threads with Instagram, Meta has gained a substantial advantage in its quest to acquire a critical mass of users and establish itself as a dominant platform. This unique capability to maintain their existing community within an application that offers a comparable experience to Twitter is what makes Threads the most formidable threat thus far. This can be backed by the user base Threads has been able to capture, Meta’s threads has been able to gather 1/5th of Twitter’s daily active users in such a short span.
Many businesses that have stopped advertising on Twitter over brand safety concerns, including the reported increase in racist and hateful speech on the platform under the ownership of Elon Musk, are excited about the possibility of advertising on Threads once that option becomes available.’’

This makes up for a compelling case for advertisers and users alike to shift from Twitter and explore a more stable platform in Threads.

Final Thoughts

The recent ownership changes in Twitter, along with concerns over increasing toxicity levels, have raised questions about the platform’s future. As a company heavily reliant on advertising revenue, Twitter faces significant challenges as advertisers express their unease and consider shifting their support to alternative platforms such as Threads, which promises a “less controversial” environment. While it may be too early to definitively predict the fate of Twitter, the signals of advertisers migrating to Threads underscore the need for creative thinking to retain ad revenue or explore new revenue streams.

However, despite the decline of Twitter, the presence of Elon Musk as a key, powerful business figure brings forth the possibility of transformative actions and innovations that could potentially reshape the platform’s trajectory. Essentially, is it the beginning of the end for Twitter or can Twitter make a marvelous recovery?

Conclusively the question lingers, will the bird continue to fly?

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