Yaccarino’s PR Push Can’t Whitewash the Awfulness of Musk-Owned Twitter
On Thursday, Twitter (X) CEO Linda Yaccarino sat down with CNBC’s Sara Eisen in an interview replete with outrageously dishonest and offensive claims about the Elon Musk-owned platform.
She told Eisen that we would all live in a “great place” if people returned to “a healthy constructive discourse amongst people that we don’t agree with.”
Indeed, the open sharing of different perspectives is a foundational principle for any democracy. But then Yaccarino tries to convince Eisen that toxic Twitter has become that great and democratic public square.
She starts with this whopper: “Reducing hateful content from being seen is one of the best examples of how X is committed to encouraging healthy behavior online.” She then follows with what she claims is statistical proof: “Today, I can confidently sit in front of you and say that 99.9 percent of all posted impressions are healthy,” Yaccarino says.
This 99.9-percent talking point is Yaccarino’s go-to; she repeats it throughout the interview. (The company’s X blog goes a decimal point further, claiming it’s 99.99 percent “healthy,” while failing to provide any hard proof.)
On follow up, Yaccarino refuses to define healthy, instead repeating Musk’s gospel that he believes in “freedom of speech, not reach,” which allows people to post “lawful but awful” content without amplification by the social network. Rhyming aside, Twitter hasn’t offered independent researchers a look at the data behind the percentage so they can either confirm or deny the dubious finding.
What Yaccarino does claim is that “an extraordinary team of people … are overseeing, hands on keyboards, monitoring all day, everyday, to make sure that that 99.9 percent of impressions remain at that number.”
But Yaccarino doesn’t acknowledge that Musk-imposed layoffs have eviscerated Twitter’s “extraordinary team” of content moderators. Since November 2022, Musk has reduced Twitter’s staff from 8,000 to 1,500 employees, including many who were part of the company’s trust and safety and human rights teams. Wired reported last year that the mass layoffs left just one Twitter staffer on the team in charge of removing child sexual abuse material from the platform.
Twitter is promoting child sexual abuse material
The layoffs are a big reason that Twitter has become a cesspool of toxic content. According to polling by USC Marshall Neely Social Media Index, more than 30 percent of adult Twitter users between March and May of this year reported “witnessing content they considered bad for the world.” That percentage was higher than that of competitors Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.
It took me less than five minutes on the platform to find content that was both against the law and extremely awful (Trigger Warning): On Aug. 10, the day Yaccarino’s interview aired, the term “lesbian” was trending on the platform. On clicking through the link in the trending column, users were led to a timeline of promoted posts, including one that depicted what appeared to be an underage girl in a sexual act with an older man.
As of Friday, Twitter had removed the violative post and suspended the account, but only after leaving the illegal child sexual abuse material up for more than seven hours and actually promoting it via the platform’s trending-topics feature.
Twitter’s failure to enforce its rules predates Musk’s chaotic reign, as Free Press documented extensively in our October 2022 Empty Promises report. But under Musk and Yaccarino, the platform has gotten much, much worse — and no amount of PR from the new CEO is going to whitewash the poisonous reality users witness on the site daily.
CNBC failed to press Yaccarino about Musk’s recent decision to enlist legions of lawyers and online trolls to intimidate and silence the Center for Countering Digital Hate. CCDH is one of the principal research groups that’s independently documented the toxic uptick in unhealthy platform content since Musk took over the platform last fall.
Yaccarino also takes Musk’s hollow free-speech rhetoric on faith. She ignores his history of blocking the speech of those he disagrees with. And it’s likely she’d have nothing to say about how Musk has helped repressive regimes censor dissident voices, banned reporters from the platform and attempted to bully his critics like CCDH into silence.
Yaccarino claims that she and Musk are “brought together” by their “joint belief in free expression and the importance of that being a foundational core value of the company.” This would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive.
In the full interview, Yaccarino claims that three out of four users feel “good” or “great” using Twitter, which doesn’t jibe with the USC polling cited above or with a recent survey by the Pew Research Center that shows that large numbers of users have left the platform, taken a break from it or plan to leave it.
Why are media giving Elon (and Linda) a pass?
And while CNBC’s (blue-check-subscribed) Eisen occasionally challenges the CEO’s spin, she seems to have bought in (literally) to the media malpractice of accepting Twitter’s rosy business pronouncements on face value.
About that, journalist Casey Newton last week wrote, “as a business, X — with its sinking ad revenues and dead-end subscription business — continues to decline in relevance.” Newton added that Musk commands influence over the public debate because the media too often devote breathless coverage to his every utterance.
In reality, Musk’s purchase of Twitter is among the worst business decisions of this century. Under Elon’s erratic reign, the platform has lost most of its value; Twitter now teeters on the brink of bankruptcy as it fails to pay its bills or make good on severance promises made to laid-off employees. According to marketing-analysis firm Pathmatics, more than 600 of Twitter’s top-1,000 advertisers have abandoned the platform, fearing that their brands wouldn’t be safe under Twitter’s unsteady leadership.
Why didn’t CNBC pose any probing questions about X’s questionable financial future? Instead, we are fed the same business-press deference to a billionaire who hasn’t earned it — certainly not in the social-networking space, where every Musk step has been a destructive pratfall.
If advertisers are won over by Yaccarino’s spin and return to Twitter, they will only have themselves to blame when their brands appear adjacent to some of the most toxic content in the world.