Chaos quickly ensued after the well-known entrepreneur Elon Musk purchased Twitter last month. Current advertisers paused their spending, and they are unlikely to revive it any time soon. In effect, brands have launched a powerful boycott that can only end in one of two ways: either Musk changes his behavior, or Twitter goes down.
Driving a media platform into the ground is not the typical goal of advertiser boycotts. However, the Twitter situation is anything but typical. Even after the swift, steep loss of advertiser revenue, Musk continued to lay off skilled employees — including those in the all-important content moderation and integrity offices.
Musk also summarily halted Twitter’s “blue check” identity verification policy, opening the door to a flood of imposter accounts that could wreak havoc with brand reputation. In one notable example, Eli Lilly suffered a steep drop in its stock price after an imposter account announced that the company was giving away free insulin.
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The purchase of Twitter officially closed on Oct. 27. CNN summed up the damage 11 days later, on Nov. 7. As CNN reported, at the time of purchase ad sales accounted for 90 percent of Twitter’s overall revenue. In less than two weeks, a growing number of advertisers jumped ship, starting with General Motors. Volkswagen Group followed suit shortly after. That may be expected since both companies compete directly with Musk’s electric vehicle venture. However, others also soon headed for the exits, including General Mills, Pfizer, Mondelēz International and REI.
In a more ominous sign for Twitter, the leading ad buying firm Interpublic Group issued a pause recommendation to its clients, including Unilever and Coca-Cola.
To stem the damage, some brands are also shutting down their Twitter accounts. Balenciaga and Playbill are reported to be among that group, with Playbill citing the platform’s “tolerance for hate, negativity and misinformation” as its reason for quitting.
The reasons for the exodus are obvious. Musk has made it clear that his approach to social media is of a piece with the tolerance for “different” thinking espoused by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg when he supported the controversial Facebook board member Peter Thiel, who played an instrumental role in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for office. (Thiel did not stand for re-election to the Facebook board in 2022.)
Though tolerance for diverse opinions may look good on paper, in Zuckerberg’s case critics say it is nothing more than a fancy justification for throwing accepted standards of civil, moral and ethical behavior out the window.
Musk stretched that point to the limit as the new owner of Twitter when he announced plans to loosen the platform’s content moderation policies. The predictable result ensued. Just five days after the sale of Twitter closed, CBS and other media outlets took note of “a massive spike in hate speech” on the platform described by a Montclair University study.
If Musk assumed that his high-profile public persona would insulate Twitter from an advertiser boycott, he was mistaken.
It is true that Musk has gained legions of adoring fans over the years, due to his reputation as a pioneer in the fields of electric vehicles, solar power and rocket ships.
However, Musk’s planet-saving brand has suffered a great deal of damage in recent years, thanks in part to his misdirection on COVID-19, allegations of racism and sexual harassment at his companies, and the environmental impacts of his SpaceX venture.
As a frequent and regular user of Twitter, Musk’s behavior on the platform itself has also impacted his reputation. That includes a tweet last month in which he recommended that Ukraine capitulate to Russia, and another in which he advised that China could turn Taiwan into another Hong Kong.
That behavior carried through to the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. Musk politicized the entire platform by tweeting out support for Republican candidates on Nov. 7, making him the first head of a social media company to take an explicitly partisan position.
So far, much of the media attention on the chaos at Twitter has focused on advertiser brand reputation.
Some have also pointed out that disaster response and other key civic services are at risk for impersonation and misdirection. That includes the electoral system.
Trump normalized lies about election fraud in the run-up to his successful bid for the presidency in 2016. The cacophony of conspiracy theories reached a fever pitch after he lost his office in 2020, and it has continued ever since.
The last thing the democratic process needs is more misdirection. Nevertheless, the New York Times and other media reported that false information about the 2022 midterm elections “proliferated” on Twitter in the days after the sale closed, coinciding with the relaxation of content policies on the platform.
That may be reprehensible, but it is consistent with Musk’s support for authoritarian Russia and China over the democracies of Ukraine and Taiwan. Sowing confusion and chaos is the hallmark of effective propaganda. Whether intentional or not, Musk — and his brand — are now part of it.
In addition to risks to corporate and public-sector communications, the new regime at Twitter also spells trouble for grassroots organizers.
Somewhat ironically, that includes Twitter campaigns like Grab Your Wallet and Sleeping Giants. Both campaigns launched in response to the Trump presidency, with the aim of pulling the financial rug out from under the Trump brand and the conservative media that supports him.
On their own, consumer boycotts are notoriously fickle and difficult to sustain. These two campaigns' Twitter-based efforts were successful because they enabled consumers to pool their voices on social media and alert businesses to brand reputation risks.
Now that Musk has enabled imposter accounts to flood Twitter, grassroots organizing on the platform could become more difficult, if not impossible.
But perhaps that was the point, all along.
Image credit via Pexels
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.