Elon Musk has said Twitter must be “politically neutral”, in a comment posted last night after a wave of account deletions by left-leaning users on the social media network.
In the days since Musk’s $44bn (£34.5bn) acquisition offer was accepted by Twitter’s board, hundreds of thousands of users have closed their accounts on the site, the company confirmed, leading to a dip in follower numbers for left-leaning politicians and celebrities such as Barack and Michelle Obama, Taylor Swift and Jeremy Corbyn.
Meanwhile, rightwing influencers such as the far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, Boris Johnson, and Ted Cruz have all had large gains as new users sign up for the service.
In the latest of a series of tweets about the platform Musk hopes to take into private ownership, the world’s wealthiest person suggested he would not seek to politicise Twitter.
“For Twitter to deserve public trust it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally,” he tweeted yesterday evening.
In earlier comments, Musk has been outspoken about his desire to promote free speech on Twitter, saying that he is “against censorship that goes far beyond the law”.
“If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect,” Musk added. “Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”
His statements have been interpreted as criticism of Twitter’s existing moderation policies, particularly of those that have affected the US right. The former president Donald Trump was banned from the social network in 2021 for his role in encouraging the storming of the US Capitol, while Greene had her personal account permanently suspended after breaking the platform’s five-strike rule.
But Musk has argued that his changes would affect all users. “Attacks are coming thick and fast, primarily from the left, which is no surprise,” he said, in a reply to the rightwing media personality Ben Shapiro. “However, I should be clear that the right will probably be a little unhappy too. My goal is to maximise area under the curve of total human happiness, which means the ~80% of people in the middle.”
The response to the acquisition is not equally distributed, however. Katy Perry, the pop star who is the site’s third biggest user, lost 7,000 followers in a few days, while Obama, whose 132 million followers makes the former US president’s account the most popular on the site, lost 5,000 on Tuesday alone. Followers of the former first lady Michelle Obama are down by nearly 20,000.
Cruz, the junior senator for Texas, added more than 60,000 followers, while Greene gained more than 100,000 followers in the last week, a tenfold increase in the normal rate. Followers of Johnson are up by nearly 10,000, but the Twitter account of the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has lost just over 1,000 followers.
Some speculated that the changes were the result of action from Twitter “cleaning house” in preparation for the acquisition, but the social network instead said they were the result of “organic” activity. “While we continue to take action on accounts that violate our spam policy which can affect follower counts, these fluctuations appear to largely be a result of an increase in new account creation and deactivation,” a spokesperson said.
Much of Musk’s criticism for Twitter’s moderation practices has been focused on a single employee, Vijaya Gadde, the company’s chief legal officer. His tweets sparked tens of thousands of abusive messages targeted at the executive, and a public rebuke from a former Twitter chief executive, Dick Costolo. “What’s going on?” Costolo tweeted at Musk. “You’re making an executive at the company you just bought the target of harassment and threats.”
“Bullying is not leadership,” he added later, to which Musk replied, “What are talking about? I’m just saying Twitter needs to be politically neutral.”
The social media platform admitted in its first quarter results on Thursday that it had overstated its user numbers by nearly 2 million between the first quarter of 2019 and the last quarter of 2021. Twitter said the miscount in monetisable daily active users was down to an error in a feature that allowed people to link multiple separate accounts together in order to conveniently switch between them.
The company had 229 million daily users in the first quarter of the year, up from 214.7 million in the previous three months. The rise was slightly higher than analysts had expected.
In what may be one of its final earnings reports as a public company, Twitter also announced its revenue rose to $1.2bn in the first quarter, up from $1.04bn a year earlier but slightly lower than forecasted.