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‘There could be serious erosion’: Tufts report finds Twitter hate speech on the rise

This video grab taken from a video posted on the Twitter account of billionaire Tesla chief Elon Musk on Oct. 26, 2022, shows him carrying a sink as he enters the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco.-/Twitter account of Elon Musk/AFP via Getty Images

Before Elon Musk took over Twitter, pundits debated whether the billionaire owner would make much-needed improvements to the service or indulge his more juvenile tendencies and make things worse.

It’s been just over two weeks since Musk took over, and it’s not going well so far.

Recall that Musk tried to reassure advertisers last month that he would not let Twitter become a “free-for-all hellscape.”

But a new report from The Fletcher School at Tufts University finds that disturbing and threatening posts on Twitter have increased since Musk took over, particularly after Musk tweeted about a homophobic conspiracy theory.

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“Early signs show the platform is heading in the wrong direction under his leadership — at a particularly inconvenient time for American democracy,” the report noted. “The conversation deteriorated quickly, with users clearly stating they were ‘testing the new Twitter out’ and pushing boundaries by writing ‘GROOMER’ over and over, espousing anti-LGBTQ views, and calling Biden a pedophile,” the report added.

Musk’s own tweets, which have also included masturbation jokes and a call to vote Republican, are helping to scare away advertisers. On Friday, Musk tweeted that he could start “a thermonuclear name & shame” campaign against advertisers who have left the service.

“At this point, Elon Musk’s reputation rides on not just fixing the chaos he started but also fixing the business model,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School, who oversaw the report.

Public figures with large followings should stop posting until Musk cleans up the situation, Chakravorti said. “We have reached the stage where the governance of this particular platform is so badly dysfunctional that the users of Twitter need to be more activist,” he said.

The Fletcher School report is consistent with other research emerging on the new Twitter climate. The Network Contagion Research Institute, a nonprofit based in New Jersey, found that antisemitic rhetoric spiked in recent days. And Advance Democracy in Virginia said tweets related to the unhinged conspiracy theory QAnon have almost doubled.

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Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, Yoel Roth, said the company is trying to combat the surge. “We’ve been focused on addressing the surge in hateful conduct on Twitter,” Roth tweeted last week. “We’ve made measurable progress, removing more than 1500 accounts and reducing impressions on this content to nearly zero.”

The chaos has not been limited to tweets. Musk quickly cut half of Twitter’s workforce, only to turn around and attempt to rehire some of those laid off. Those remaining have yet to hear directly from the new owner, who has proposed replacing lost ad revenue with a new premium service that would include account verification for $8 a month.

Musk himself has pushed back against the critics, including tweeting a graph showing the number of monetizable daily active users exceeding 255 million recently, the highest ever. “Twitter usage is at an all-time high lol,” Musk wrote. “I just hope the servers don’t melt!”

Chakravorti maintains that the negative content will drive away users sooner or later.

“If they don’t fix this platform, there could be serious erosion,” he said.


Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.