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Musk seeks to reassure advertisers, promises rapid changes to Twitter

The billionaire owner answered questions on hate speech, verification and advertiser concerns during a publicly broadcast meeting on Twitter Spaces

Twitter CEO Elon Musk. (Carina Johansen/AFP/Getty Images)
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Elon Musk laid out more of his plans for Twitter in a publicly broadcast meeting Wednesday, assuring advertisers he had noted their concerns about hate speech and misinformation on the site while saying the platform would continue changing rapidly and that some of its new features would fail.

Musk took questions over the course of roughly an hour from two of his executives and a representative of the advertising industry during a Twitter Spaces meeting, which was broadcast live on the site midday. More than 100,000 people listened live.

He repeated that the company hasn’t made any changes to its content moderation policies — which attempt to keep rule-breaking content off the site — but said he believes requiring more people to pay to use Twitter through a new $8 verification program would lower the amount of hate speech overall.

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The billionaire said the company’s progress would be much more freewheeling than in the past, with new ideas rapidly becoming features and then being cut quickly if they don’t work out. Mistakes will be made, he said.

“If nothing else I am a technologist and I can make technology go fast,” Musk said. “If we do not try bold moves, how will we make great improvements?”

Twitter confirmed that new paid-for checkmark criteria had launched Wednesday in a guide on how to attain the blue tick.

The Twitter Spaces event came just days after Musk — who acquired Twitter in a $44 billion deal last month — threatened a “thermonuclear name & shame” campaign against advertisers that leave the site out of concern for his approach to content moderation.

Last week the new Twitter owner said the site was facing a “massive drop in revenue” as advertisers paused campaigns. A coterie of large advertisers and marketing agencies have said they will slow down or pause spending on the site out of concern that Musk laying off half the company’s workforce will hurt its ability to police hate speech and sexually explicit content, which they do not want their ads showing up next to.

Musk has been scrambling to shore up the company’s revenue streams, cut costs by laying people off and find new ways to make money as he faces the reality of having to pay around $1 billion a year in interest on the debt he accrued buying Twitter. The vast majority of Twitter’s revenue comes from advertising. A potential recession and rising inflation have already cut deeply into ad budgets, making now a particularly hard time for the entire digital ad industry.

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It makes sense that advertisers don’t want their ads next to sexually explicit or hateful content, Musk said Wednesday. “I don’t think having hate speech next to an ad is great.”

At a Twitter investors conference in New York on Nov. 4, Elon Musk said pressure on advertisers from unnamed activists was “an attack on the First Amendment.” (Video: Reuters)

Musk said on the Spaces meeting that Twitter should honor freedom of speech but that it didn’t need to boost everyone’s opinions through its recommendation algorithms.

“We have to be tolerant of views we don’t agree with, but those views don’t need to be amplified,” he said.

He previously tweeted that the company planned to instate a content moderation council of outside advisers to make decisions regarding what users should be banned or restored to the site, something that could affect notable accounts, including former president Donald Trump’s.

He said that would take a few months to assemble — and wouldn’t have the power to restrict certain types of content.

“At the end of the day I am the Chief Twit here, so the responsibility is mine,” he said. “If I make decisions that people don’t like, then advertisers will leave the system, users will leave the system and we will fail.”

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He added: “Forgiveness is just a very important principle.”

Meanwhile on Wednesday, President Biden said aspects of Musk’s business dealings should be scrutinized, in a news conference following the midterm elections. He had been asked about the involvement of foreign governments in Musk’s Twitter acquisition.

“I think that Elon Musk’s cooperation and/or technical relationships with other countries is worthy of being looked at,” Biden said. “Whether or not he is doing anything inappropriate, I am not suggesting that, I am suggesting that it’s worth being looked at. And that’s all I’ll say.”

His comments followed Washington Post reporting last week that Musk struck confidential agreements with investors that entitled them to confidential information rights in the company if they poured $250 million or more into the bid. That threshold would appear to qualify investors including a Saudi prince’s holding company, a subsidiary of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund and crypto exchange Binance — which was founded in China — for information rights in the company. Biden’s comments came as U.S. officials were weighing their authority to review the deal, including the potential jurisdiction of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

Biden did not name any entities specifically but said there were several avenues through which the deal could be examined.

President Biden on Nov. 9 said that Elon Musk’s joint acquisition of Twitter was “worth being looked at,” considering the involvement of foreign governments. (Video: The Washington Post)

On the platform itself, Musk has shaken advertisers’ faith that he would maintain rules against misinformation and hate speech in the nearly two weeks he’s owned the company. The day before he closed the deal, Musk tweeted a statement committing to keeping the site from becoming a “free for all hellscape.” But soon after, he himself boosted a baseless conspiracy theory about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

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NAACP President Derrick Johnson called on businesses last week to drop their advertisements on Twitter “until actions are taken to make Twitter a safe space.” Musk, a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” accused businesses that participate in the boycott of “trying to destroy free speech in America.”

Automakers Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen have all pulled their Twitter ads, along with cereal and snack companies General Mills and Mondelez, the corporation behind Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers and Sour Patch Kids candy. International ad and consulting firm Interpublic Group, which represents American Express, Coca-Cola, Fitbit, Spotify and dozens of other major corporations, has also advised its clients to suspend Twitter ad buys for now.

“A thermonuclear name & shame is exactly what will happen if this continues,” Musk tweeted Friday as more companies began their advertising exits, threatening to unleash his rowdy online fans on businesses and executives that desert the platform.

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Musk’s biggest change so far is an idea to charge people $8 per month for a blue verification check mark — opening the program that is supposed to indicate trusted sources of information to the broader public. Critics are worried the change will create havoc on a platform that already struggles with the proliferation of disinformation, bots and scammers.

Musk defended the approach Wednesday, saying it would make the site more reliable and help eliminate or demote fake accounts.

He also stopped a new rollout that started Wednesday morning giving already officially verified accounts a new badge to denote they’ve been confirmed to be who they say they are. Musk tweeted he had “killed it,” and a Twitter executive clarified later that the company was focusing on using the badges for “government and commercial entities” instead of individuals.

“Apart from it being an aesthetic nightmare when looking at the Twitter feed it is simply another way of creating a two-class system,” he said during the Twitter Spaces. “It wasn’t addressing the core problem of there are too many entities that would be considered official or have legacy blue check marks.”

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Already on Wednesday, some accounts began appearing with new blue check marks — including several that appeared to be impersonating famous athletes, media personalities and others who had qualified under Twitter’s legacy verification system.

“Only accounts subscribed to Twitter Blue on iOS on or after November 9, 2022 are eligible for the blue checkmark moving forward,” the guide to the new rules said, making reference to Apple’s mobile operating system. “Note that all accounts subscribed to Twitter Blue on iOS on or after November 9, 2022 will automatically receive a blue checkmark, which will persist for the duration of the subscribers’ subscription term.”

Twitter for Android engineers were among those laid off, according to a person familiar with the job cuts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe the layoffs, and the company was left in search of engineers familiar with that platform.

Twitter would not immediately take away check marks from those who had attained them under the previous regime. But users would not necessarily keep them — and those violating Twitter’s rules could lose them, the company said.

“Legacy verified accounts also may be taken away at any time for any reason at all by Twitter,” the new guidelines said.

Musk also floated the idea Wednesday of incorporating banking into Twitter, though it was clear the idea was at a very early stage. He described how users might attach an authenticated bank account to their Twitter handle, move cash into Twitter and even use debit cards tied to the site. Twitter, he said, could be the site of “an extremely compelling money market account.”

Any move into banking would probably subject Twitter to regulatory scrutiny.

At the end of the meeting Wednesday, Musk said he will measure success in his ownership of Twitter through more users signing up and more people using Twitter. He also wants to make sure that no one regrets spending their time on the platform, and that it serves “the greater good of civilization.”