Earlier today, Twitter CEO Elon Musk replied to a user who was confused about the increase in “right wing” posts he was seeing in his feed. “People on the right should see more ‘left wing’ stuff and people on the left should see more ‘right wing’ stuff,” Musk tweeted, adding that users who want to “stay in an echo chamber” can “just block it.”
In classic Musk fashion, this casual reply hints at potentially massive changes to Twitter’s algorithm and user experience.
Not only does it seem like Twitter has begun featuring more political posts on people’s “For You” feeds; it’s possible the entire concept behind “For You” feeds may need to be rethought.
While Musk may have figured out how to do some cool stuff with rockets, he still doesn’t understand the concept behind his favorite term, “free speech.”
For example, introducing opposing political commentary to people’s feeds isn’t proven to illuminate expanded awareness or bridge a notorious and ugly gap among citizens. Instead, it seems to do the very opposite.
Meta discovered this way back in 2020. According to a blog post by Facebook CTO Andrew Bosworth, when Facebook users began seeing more posts containing opposing viewpoints, they expressed more hostility and angst in their responses and posts, not more empathy.
Musk’s move to push opposing viewpoints into feeds may not be good for business either. Facebook users were less likely to click on posts if they didn’t agree with them, which meant less engagement overall for the social platform, which eventually began dialing back the amount of political content being dished out on user feeds.
Meta’s Q4 2020 earning call featured CEO Mark Zuckerberg stating that “one of the top pieces of feedback we’re hearing from our community right now is that people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services.”
Now, according to TheWall Street Journal, politics accounts for less than 3% of total content views in users’ Facebook newsfeeds, down from 6% around the 2020 election.
Sure, Twitter isn’t Facebook or Instagram, but aren’t people people? Even though Twitter is a hub for heated debate (which often escalates into straight-up shit-talking), it’s hard to believe that force-feeding (no pun intended) liberals headlines about problems with “my body, my choice” –– or sending conservatives pro-abortion messages –– will produce thoughtful responses, especially when it depends so much upon the source material being introduced.
The echo chamber Musk references exists. And I can see why social platforms, being at the center of society and daily life -- and being partly responsible for so much hate and political upheaval over the past few years -- would want to step in. There’s guilt, there’s ego, there’s a need to change things.
Unfortunately for Musk, I think ego has overtaken guilt and public service. His misunderstanding of free speech and his outspoken political leanings support his disregard (or plain ignorance) of the studies opposing the effectiveness of his plan.
And despite the calamitous past few months, we probably haven’t seen the worst of what’s to come of the microblogging “town square.”
Yet, according to Axios, more than three dozen sports leagues and media companies -- including CBS Sports, FOX, ESPN, Reuters, Bloomberg, Conde Nast, Paramount, Disney and Axios itself (although apparently not The New York Times) -- plan on sticking with lucrative content deals with Twitter through at least this year's first half. Axios got lots of “no comments” from these companies, which appear to be reluctant to confirm this directly.
Further, "while many advertising categories across Twitter saw between a 30%–60% drop in the number of active U.S. advertisers last quarter compared to the same quarter in 2021, the number of active U.S. media and entertainment advertisers fell by less than 15%, according to a source familiar with the situation," according to Axios.
But if Musk continues with his little experiment, treating Twitter users like hamsters in a cage, advertisers and media companies may come to wish that they had heeded their instincts at being embarrassed about keeping up their Twitter ad spend and advertising deals.