The Media Today

Glitches, trolls, and declining revenue take center stage in the Twitter soap opera

March 9, 2023
Elon Musk's Twitter profile displayed on a screen and reflceted Twitter logo displayed on a phone screen are seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on April 14, 2022. (Photo illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via AP)

Social media is known for producing drama. In Twitter’s case, that’s been true as much behind the scenes as on the platform of late. On Monday, the service was hit by the latest in a series of glitches; this one made it impossible for users to post images, and also triggered a popup error about the company’s application programming interface, or API, whenever someone clicked on a link. Casey Newton and Zoë Schiffer later reported, in the Platformer newsletter, that the glitch was the result of a lone engineer making a mistake while trying to restrict free access to Twitter’s API—a decision that the company recently announced, to the frustration of researchers and journalists who depend on access to the API for their work. Then, on Tuesday, Elon Musk, who acquired Twitter last year for forty-four billion dollars, got into a public spat with Haraldur Thorleifsson, an employee who was seeking clarity on whether he’d been laid off, with Musk accusing Thorleifsson of doing no work and pretending to have a disability. Thorleifsson has multiple dystrophy and is in a wheelchair, and in the past has been named Iceland’s Person of the Year. (Musk later apologized to Thorleifsson, who, Musk said, is now “considering remaining at Twitter.”)

Also on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Trade Commission has demanded that Twitter turn over any internal communications related to Musk, as well as detailed information about staff layoffs; according to documents seen by Ryan Tracy, a Journal reporter, the FTC cited “concerns that staff reductions could compromise the company’s ability to protect users.” In letters sent to Twitter and its lawyers since Musk’s acquisition of the company, the FTC also asked the company to identify all journalists who have been granted access to company records. This appears to be a reference to the “Twitter Files,” reports from a number of journalists, including Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss, that were based on internal documents that Musk’s Twitter provided to them, and alleged censorship and other improprieties by Twitter’s former management. According to the Journal, the FTC is also seeking to depose Musk.

Musk responded to Monday’s technical glitches by saying that “a small API change had massive ramifications. The code stack is extremely brittle for no good reason. Will ultimately need a complete rewrite.” After the recent housecleaning in which thousands of employees were laid off, Musk demanded that those left at the company commit to his “extremely hardcore” vision, which would see them work for “long hours at high intensity,” or be forced out. Between October, when Musk took control of Twitter, and late January, about eighty percent of full-time workers left the company, Engadget reported, leaving it severely understaffed in some areas. A former employee told the Washington Post that at least six critical systems at Twitter—“like ‘serving tweets’ levels of critical,” the former staffer said—“no longer have any engineers” associated with them. Twitter now has about two thousand employees, down from seven thousand five hundred when Musk took over.

According to NetBlocks, a group that tracks internet outages, Twitter went down at least four times in February alone; in the whole of last year, it experienced only nine outages. Glitches that have stopped users from posting tweets or slowed down their timeline have become much more noticeable than in the past, users and researchers have said. “It used to be that you’d see smaller things fail, but now Twitter is going down completely for certain regions of the world,” Saagar Jha, a former engineer at the company, told the Times. “When serious things break, the people who knew the systems aren’t there.”

The glitches at Twitter have had more serious ramifications than merely being annoying (though they have also been that). In February, the Times reported that more than thirty prominent Chinese dissidents and activists had seen tweets and even their entire accounts disappear, according to interviews with nine of them and other evidence, including screenshots. “The activists’ accounts did not appear after a search of their Twitter names, the screenshots showed, though impostor accounts turned up,” the Times reported. “Three of the dissidents said their accounts had also been suspended with no warning and reinstated only after appeals.” The problems were reportedly a result of mistakes in the company’s automated systems, which are supposed to filter out spam and state-backed disinformation campaigns.

This week, meanwhile, Marianna Spring, the BBC’s disinformation and social media correspondent, reported, based on interviews with Twitter insiders as well as academic data and user testimony, that the company is no longer able to protect users not only from trolling and state-backed disinformation but also from child sexual exploitation, following the layoffs and other changes since Musk’s acquisition. Twitter’s former head of content design, Lisa Jennings Young, told the BBC that everyone on her team was fired, and that she resigned. Twitter’s own research has suggested that safety measures implemented by Jennings Young and her team likely reduced trolling by as much as sixty percent, according to Spring. An engineer who is currently still working at Twitter said “nobody’s taking care” of this type of work now, and compared the service to a building that seems fine from the outside but inside is “on fire” (though it looks pretty on fire from the outside, too). Spring reported that “targeted harassment campaigns aimed at curbing freedom of expression, and foreign influence operations” are now going undetected, and that, since Musk took over, there has been a sixty-nine-percent increase in new accounts that follow misogynistic and abusive profiles. Musk did not speak with the BBC but did dismiss its reporting in a snarky tweet.

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Last week, the Journal reported that Twitter’s revenue and adjusted earnings fell by forty percent in December. The report came after several advertisers cut their spending on the service following Musk’s acquisition, which led ad revenue on the platform to drop by more than seventy percent in December. Amazon said at one point that it wouldn’t pay for ads that ran on Twitter, because the company had not paid the bill for its use of Amazon’s cloud services, The Information reported. In January, Twitter said that it planned to resume allowing political advertising, but Politico reported this week that, almost two months later, Twitter still doesn’t have any of that type of advertising lined up, either.

On Tuesday, Musk told an investment conference that he had had to take drastic measures to improve the company’s finances, claiming that without the cuts, it would have gone bankrupt by now. Despite these financial difficulties, however, Twitter managed, at the end of January, to make the first interest payment on a loan that helped finance Musk’s purchase of the company, according to Reuters, which reported that Twitter recently paid about three-hundred-million dollars to a group of banks to service the more than thirteen billion dollars in financing that went toward the acquisition of the company. Reuters also reported that, last year, Musk initially planned to sell Twitter’s outstanding debt to investors, only to shelve the idea because investors weren’t convinced of the company’s future viability.

Whether he’s ridiculing employees with disabilities or justifying his capricious layoffs, Musk’s behavior seems increasingly erratic. It would be easy to dismiss it as part of a soap opera that long ago grew kind of tedious. But he remains the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company that continues to play a central role in the information ecosystem. Would-be alternatives such as Mastodon, an open-source network, and Bluesky, which was founded by the former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, have yet to achieve the momentum to dethrone Twitter.

Many of us, then, are still on the platform, where reminders of the Musk soap opera are—by design—becoming harder to avoid. Schiffer and Newton reported recently that Musk declared an internal state of emergency after a tweet he posted about the Super Bowl got less engagement than a tweet of President Biden’s. On a previous occasion, when an engineer dared to suggest that Musk’s lower reach was because his tweets aren’t all that interesting, Musk fired him. After the Super Bowl finished, Musk flew his private jet back to the Bay Area to demand answers about his low-performing tweet, Newton wrote. After being threatened with further firings, according to Newton, Twitter engineers built a system specifically to promote their boss’s tweets. The next day, “Twitter users opened the app to find that Musk’s posts overwhelmed their ranked timeline.”

Some news from the home front:
On Monday, March 20, starting at 10am Eastern, CJR and Columbia Journalism School’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights will host a one-day exploration of inequality across American society and how it’s covered in the media. Born in the aftermath of the global racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd, the Inequality Project was conceived of as a pairing of social science and journalism to highlight not only current inequalities in America but their roots and the ways in which these dynamics have been created and recreated over time. The Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights commissioned five teams of scholars to research inequality spanning the past hundred years in five distinct areas: housing, criminal justice, wealth, education, and health. Their work has culminated in five seminal reports that will be released and discussed at this conference. The goal is to shine new light on the scale of inequality in America, and to offer journalists a roadmap to better cover the problem. You can RSVP here.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.