In October, polarizing billionaire and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk bought the polarizing social media platform Twitter for $44 billion, promising to change the way the site operated.
In several statements, mostly tweets, Musk alluded to the decrease in moderation on the platform, promising to make the site a bastion of “free speech”.
In the months that followed, he implemented several new initiatives across the company and on the ground, including laying off hundreds of employees, restoring hundreds of previously banned accountsremoving verification badges from most users who haven’t paid $8 a month for a Twitter Blue subscription, and pledging to fix the site’s bot problem.
But new research shows that the site also underwent another change after Musk took over — it became more hateful.
According to data collected by researchers at USC, UCLA, UC Merced and Oregon State University, daily use of hate speech by those who posted hateful tweets nearly doubled after Musk finalized the sale. And the overall volume of hate speech also doubled across the site.
The research was conducted by Keith Burghardt, Matheus Schmitz and Goran Muric of USC, Daniel Fessler of UCLA, Daniel Hickey of Oregon State and Paul Smaldino of UC Merced.
The group studied the tweets of users who made hateful posts a month before and after Twitter was sold, and also sampled the general user group.
The researchers first developed a “hate lexicon” of 49 racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and transphobic terms. They then examined pre- and post-sale posts using an artificial intelligence tool that scanned the hateful terms and their frequency, weeding out “non-toxic” or non-hateful uses of the terms.
“We first had to come up with a set of words that we could determine to be hateful,” Burghardt, a computer scientist at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Institute of Information Sciences, said in a press release. “Our goal was to find words with relatively high accuracy, which means that if people are using those words, it’s unlikely they’re being used in a non-hateful way.”
The volume of hate speech posted by hateful users increased after the sale was finalized, although researchers noticed that hate speech on Twitter was increasing even before Musk bought it.
Early in the project, the researchers hypothesized that with Musk agreeing to less restrictive policies, hate speech would increase. But they weren’t sure how much.
“I didn’t have any expectations one way or the other,” said Fessler, director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, in an interview with The Times, “because it’s so hard to assess in advance. You don’t know what the population of users is potentially producing that content, you don’t know what the population size is or what the frequency of tweets and retweets is.”
But the results shocked Burghardt.
“What was surprising was… that this material increased so dramatically,” he told The Times. “We didn’t expect hate users to actually be using more hate words after Elon Musk joined Twitter.”
Fessler noted that expressions of bigotry have increased since the start of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and that Musk “winked at those sentiments often enough that a population of active or potential Twitter users who shared those views recognized the opportunity they were being given.”
“From a sort of 30,000-foot level,” Fessler said, “the Twitter effect really reflects broader societal trends.”
The researchers noted that they could not “prove a causal relationship between the Musk takeover and hate speech.” The CEO’s changes to moderation are “poorly documented,” they said.
The research is an important step in identifying how and why people can become radicalized online through what has been called stochastic terrorism, in which hate speech is used to incite violent acts, Burghardt said.
Social media may play a role in this radicalization, he said, but more research is needed.
Once users join these hate groups, even on social media sites that aren’t traditionally hateful, Burghardt said, they immediately become more hateful and antagonistic.
“We hope that once they join these sites they become more likely to advocate violence,” he said, “and then a small proportion actually commit these acts.”
But despite the documented increase in hate speech, Fessler noted that it came from a small population.
“This is by no means a majority opinion,” he said. “And society as a whole is… increasingly tolerant of difference and increasingly diverse.”
Twitter has substantial influence despite its relatively small size, so Fessler is concerned that it is apparently subject to the whims of one person – Musk.
“It’s troubling when a platform with the reach of Twitter can be purchased by an individual and even modest attempts to turn it to socially constructive purposes … are deconstructed and removed,” Fessler said.