Observers fear that the FIFA World Cup, which began on Sunday, will show the limits of Twitter under the era of Elon Musk: with a reduced workforce and complete freedom of expression, they expect an outpouring of hate and repeated that destruction.
On one side is the twittering optimism of Elon Musk, and on the other is Twitter’s army of threatening birds. The CEO of Tesla and new boss of the microblogging site assured Sunday, November 20, that it is necessary “follow the World Cup on Twitter for the best possible coverage [de l’événement]”. Observers and former employees of the site fear, meanwhile, that this competition will bring Twitter to its knees and there will be an unprecedented surge of racist and hateful messages.
For Elon Musk, the stakes are high at this Football World Cup, which will take place from November 20 to December 18 in Qatar. The competition is one of the most followed events in social networks and will be a test for the new Twitter, during a severe staff reduction. Football is, in 2021, the most commented sport on Twitter, ahead of basketball, American football and baseball combined, Twitter recalled in a press release at the end of October… a few days before almost the entire communications team was thanked by Elon Musk.
Twitter and the profitable business of football
The same applies to the credibility of its new acquisition, especially in the eyes of advertisers. The 2018 World Cup alone boosted advertising revenue by 5% for a full quarter, the Wall Street Journal points out.
There is no question therefore of knowing the hiccups. “The teams have been at work for several weeks to prepare everything for the World Cup,” said Ella Irwin says, Twitter’s vice-president in charge of site security, shortly before the kick-off of the first match of the World Cup between Qatar and Ecuador.
So he is trying to reassure football fans who were surprised by Elon Musk’s decision to close the Twitter site for the weekend of November 20 following a series of resignations of the group’s employees. “Did you know that the World Cup starts on the 20th???”, asked a surfer, obviously doubting the ability of the social network to ensure “the best possible coverage” if the area is closed.
This exchange with Ella Irwin illustrates the extent to which observers fear that the (mix-)cleaning that Elon Musk has done within Twitter will weaken the platform by the time the World Cup begins with all the controversies .
Between massive layoffs and a series of resignations, Twitter’s workforce – more than 7,500 employees before the arrival of Elon Musk – was “divided in a matter of weeks”, emphasizes the British daily The Guardian. Entire teams have sometimes disappeared: “An engineer told us that his service has gone from 75 people … to three”, specified the Wall Street Journal, in an investigation dedicated to Elon Musk’s Twitter facing in the challenge of the Cup world.
Under these conditions, “there is a one in two chance that a major loss will affect Twitter during this two-week competition”, assured a former employee of the social network on condition of anonymity, interviewed by the site that The Guardian. The third part of the teams that must ensure that the site can withstand the shock in the event of a sharp increase in attendance – as during the world of football – was thanked by the new CEO.
Almost 100% of racist tweets were retained
The opening ceremony and Qatar’s loss to Ecuador in the first game of the competition did not dampen Twitter. But this is not the most anticipated game. The entry into operation of heavyweights, such as Brazil, Germany or even France, should further test the stability of Twitter.
On the other hand, the kick-off of this “great football party” has already sparked its share of racist and hateful comments towards players of color with little or no effect for their authors, noted of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) – the Center for Countering Digital Hate, in a preliminary analysis, the results of which were seen by The Guardian. British stars Graham Sterling and Bukayo Saka, in particular, have been targeted by an outpouring of online hate, referring to the CCDH.
Of a selection of 100 tweets reported in 24 hours calling black players “niggers” or accompanied by emojis with clear racist connotations, 99 were retained on the platform, reports The Guardian.
However, the moderation rules provide for censorship of messages of an overtly racist nature. Except that the moderation teams, again, have been reduced to a trickle since Elon Musk’s takeover. “We know that Twitter operates with a very small staff and this is reflected in the proliferation of hateful messages that are not moderated”, summarizes Pica Johansson, online hate specialist at the Alan Turing Institute in London, who interviewed by The Guardian. .
Of course, racism against athletes of color has not been born since the site was taken over by Elon Musk: more than 55% of black footballers have been the subject of racist tweets during Euro-2020 and the African Cup. football nations of 2020, noted FIFA, in a press release published in April 2022 to denounce online hatred in social networks.
But Elon Musk’s promotion of an “absolutist” concept of freedom of expression seems to have made the situation even worse. This was interpreted as “a signal to all the racists in the world that Twitter is ready to accept them”, lamented Imran Ahmed, director of the CCDH, interviewed by the Washington Post.
Knowing that the toxic environment of hate can scare away advertisers, Elon Musk also likes to put a little water in his wine. So he assured, Friday, November 19, that hateful tweets will not be highlighted by algorithms and “that you have to specifically look for them to find them”.
A guarantee that did not reassure observers who feared a wave of hatred during the world. “All tweets identified [comme racistes] of the CCDH used on Twitter the pseudonyms of the insulted players in their messages”, said The Guardian. In other words, it will be difficult for players not to see them.
In 2010, the Football World Cup was one of the first events to prove the usefulness of a service like Twitter for following major sporting and other events live. The site on this occasion updated all its architecture to better withstand peak attendance. Will the 2022 edition prove to Elon Musk that his vision of a reduced Twitter staff in an increasingly hostile digital world has its limits? No one knows.