On Wednesday evening, as the first news was emerging of the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, University of Pennsylvania professor Sarah Jackson went to Twitter. It was a natural reaction. For years, despite all its problems, Twitter was the place where breaking news spread most quickly. Both journalists and officials found it useful as a means to get the word out well in advance of articles or press conferences.
But what Jackson found was not what she expected.
Rather than accredited journalists or local officials, Jackson’s search results were overrun with “blue check” accounts spreading conspiracy theories about the shooter being Muslim. Results also included at least five reported “suspects,” identified by name and sometimes with images, none of whom were connected to the shooting or being sought by the police. She concluded that the site now known as X no longer has any value for following news in real time.
In a year of ownership, Elon Musk has turned a vital, growing site that had an important role in both spreading news and encouraging democracy into a racist right-wing cesspit of disinformation and state-sponsored propaganda. And it’s sinking.
As The Washington Post reports, Musk put up $44 billion to purchase Twitter, promising to rid the site of the “woke mind virus.” A year later, he has shed the site’s name, much of its functionality, advertisers, revenue, and millions of users.
Traffic to the site is down nearly 15% in a year. Marketing firm Ebiquity reports a 94% drop in the number of its clients advertising on the site. According to Axios, downloads of the application are down by 38% since Musk took over. The time users spend on the platform has decreased and the number of users who have stopped using it completely is up by 30% compared to the previous year.
But mostly Musk has systematically eliminated the idea that his site can be trusted. That started by removing the verification flags that had been handed out to established and vetted sources of news, and instead offering them up to anyone—or any bot—willing to shell out $8 a month. Sources like NPR left the site after not just losing that verification, but being deliberately and repeatedly undercut by Musk. Other news outlets remained, but found that their voices were increasingly stifled by an algorithm that values outrage over accuracy.
Conservative conspiracy theorists who had been previously banned on Twitter for spreading false claims, overt racism, and encouraging violence are now among the most widely followed and frequently amplified accounts. Musk himself has repeatedly dived into the site to support these accounts, boosting their importance and visibility.
At the same time, accounts offering more liberal voices have been repressed. Accounts that were growing rapidly stopped growing as soon as Musk arrived. For more than a year, major voices have seen either no growth or a decline in followers as Musk drove up support for his preferred accounts.
Where Twitter attempted to hold a strictly neutral political position, Musk has had no hesitation. He endorsed Ron DeSantis, supported conspiracy theories about public health and vaccines, called for Ukraine to give up, and paid Tucker Carlson to spread his hate through X.
Where Twitter was formerly a site on which media outlets both broke stories and promoted their own sites, Musk has taken steps explicitly designed to make X less useful for journalists. That has included deliberately throttling traffic to major media sites, removing the headlines from articles posted on X, and promoting “citizen journalists” as being more reliable sources.
In the case of the conflict in Israel and Gaza, Musk has promoted an account run by an 18-year-old Syrian immigrant living in London as an accurate source. Media analysis service Newsguard reported that three-fourths of the most widely seen posts promoting disinformation came from X’s blue check accounts. That has included spreading fake videos and images that have drastically misrepresented actions by both Israel and the United States.
This post claiming that U.S. Marines were deploying in Israel and providing a “World War 3 alert” was viewed at least 1.4 million times.
Those aren’t Marines. That’s not Israel. This is from years ago. But under Musk’s leadership, X put this message under heavy rotation, just as it has false images that claim to show violence by either Israel or Hamas, false reports of either Jews or Palestinians attacked in other countries, and false claims about U.S. military involvement. The more inflaming or infuriating the message, the more it gets promoted on X.
In Ukraine, Musk has repeatedly promoted information taken from Russian state media or Russian military bloggers. He has mocked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and insisted that Ukraine needs to surrender. He’s provided his own “peace plan” that includes giving Ukrainian territory to Russia and leaving the rest of Ukraine unprotected. That’s all in addition to deliberately cutting off Ukraine from his Starlink network in the middle of an attack.
As former Twitter policy official Anika Collier Navaroli made clear in testimony to the House Jan. 6 committee, what Musk most wanted in purchasing Twitter was to create an amplifier for hate. “It seems a lot like Elon Musk’s version of free speech was for him and his friends to be able to do hate speech without getting in trouble,” Navaroli said.
Now he has that. The platform that used to provide journalists with a rapid source of information has been buried under a sea of right-wing conspiracy theories, racism, anything-for-clicks nonsense, and plain old hate. The platform many people in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere counted on as a means to raise their voices against repressive authorities has been drowned by the repressive authority of a man whose only interest is in elevating voices that mimic his own.
All of this is made far more disturbing by the fact that the second-largest investor in the site is the Kingdom Holding Company controlled by Saudi Arabian despot Mohammed bin Salman. Bin Salman’s attitude toward journalists can be summed up with bone saws and an oven. His response toward dissidents is simply to kill them all. Musk certainly seems to be following a path that would please this investor.
And despite all those big drops in usage and new users, there is one big, bright spot: Traffic for Musk’s personal posts was up 96% in the last year, meaning that his opinion was more heard than ever. Maybe he feels like that’s $44 billion well spent.