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Digital Transformation Ad Spend Brand Safety

Elon Musk and Twitter: a timeline of chaos

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By Chris Sutcliffe | Senior reporter

November 11, 2022 | 24 min read

The takeover of Twitter has been chaotic – and if there’s one thing brands hate when choosing where to spend their budgets, it’s chaos. We keep tabs on the latest changes that will impact marketers...

Twitter's future stands on the edge of a cliff, with new owner Elon Musk warning of bankruptcy within a fortnight of taking over

Twitter's new owner Elon Musk has warned of bankruptcy less than a fortnight after taking over

November 29

Musk's public posturing around Twitter and Apple (see below) continues, though he has notably deleted his tweet about 'going to war'. Around 50% of Twitter's biggest advertisers are now reported to have reduced or paused advertising on the platform.

Meanwhile, further feature development resources appear to have been shifted to the ongoing issues around verification.

Additionally, despite Musk having very publicly claimed that issues around child safety are paramount for the platform, it is reported that the teams responsible for monitoring and removing explicit material related to children have been gutted. Reportedly only a single employee remains to enforce Twitter’s ban such content across Japan and the entire Asia Pacific region - which encompasses more than 60% of the world’s population.

Twitter has also announced it will no longer be enforcing its own rules around Covid-19 misinformation.

Twitter will no longer moderate misinformation around Covid-19

November 28

Bloomberg and the Financial Times have reported that Twitter's new owner Elon Musk has personally called the CEOs of companies that have stopped advertising on the platform, in order to 'berate' them. This tactic does not appear to have moved the needle on adspend on the platform.

Meanwhile Twitter's internal errors appear to be mounting up in the face of job losses, with neither the remaining UK or German offices having been paid on time.

November 27

Elon Musk has posted a tweet implying he is 'going to war' with Apple over the 30% transaction fee it charges for payments made through the app store. This is the same fee that famously got Fortnite - one of the most popular battle royale games in the world - kicked off the iOS app store due to a dispute between Apple and Epic Games. Despite that, Musk is attempting to present the fee as a 'secret'.

Apple has reportedly dramatically reduced its ad spend on Twitter. In the first quarter of the year the company was responsible for around 4% of Twitter's overall ad revenue. It has since cut back significantly on that amount, prompting Musk to frame the removal as Apple refusing to back 'free speech in America'.

At time of writing there has been no direct response from either Apple or its CEO Tim Cook. What is notable is that Musk's public complaints have sparked speculation that Apple could remove Twitter from the App Store - though analysts are divided on the likelihood of this outcome. While that would be politically difficult for Apple, it would be an existential threat for Musk's Twitter.

November 24

Twitter appears to have lost its entire Brussels office to new owner Elon Musk's wide-ranging job cuts. This comes at a tricky time, as European regulators are on the warpath regarding moderation of online content - and the Brussels office was their main port of call with the social media platform.

November 22

Twitter has promoted Chris Riedy to head of ad sales. Previously he was the platform's vice president EMEA, and has been with the company for ten years. He spent two of those years as a senior manager for US sales. It remains to be seen whether this installation of a well-known sales figure will be enough to quiet the concerns around brand safety on the platform.

Musk has reportedly made plans for end-to-end encrypted DMs, in addition to video and voice chats on the platform. The Verge reports that Musk said the creator of Signal is interested in helping develop encryption for direct messages. One of the core concerns among 'ex-tweeps' who have left the company is that Musk still has access to their direct messages.

Additionally, Musk has reportedly said that the firing phase of taking over the company is done, and that the company will begin building back teams.

November 21

Twitter UK's managing director Dara Nasr has left the company, having been managing director since November 2015. It follows reports last week that the UK headquarters has been shut down, with no trace remaining of the company in the London building.

His counterpart in France, Damien Viel, also announced he was no longer with the company. This was later confirmed by Bloomberg. He had been with Twitter France for seven years all told.

As The Drum's US correspondent Kendra Clark explains: Some believe it’s all a symptom that Musk is trying anything and everything to recoup the billions he poured into the acquisition. “We are seeing a real-time pilot of Elon Musk in search of a business model that works,” says Joe Pulizzi, an entrepreneur, podcaster and author of various marketing books. “Accurate information, first amendment, free speech – all that is secondary. Elon has $27bn of his own money in this and he’s desperate to find a model that will significantly increase the value of Twitter over time. Adding Trump and Kanye back on the platform is good for monetizing eyeballs. That’s it.”

November 20

Kanye West announced his account was no longer suspended in a test tweet. the US rapper was initially suspended early in October after tweeting: 'death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE'.

It was part of the ongoing relaxation of the rules that also saw the former US President Trump unbanned for his role in inciting the January 6th riots in the Capitol - although at time of writing the divisive figure appeared disinclined to tweet despite Musk's pleading.

It raises doubts about whether Musk was being honest when he said such decisions would go before a council to make these decisions; Trump was reinstated following a narrow Twitter poll.

November 19

Twitter's head of US content partnerships Sarah Rosen has quit, stating that it was a difficult decision but "hot damn we had it good at Twitter1.0". Rosen has been behind many of the high-profile partnerships with news and entertainment companies - on which a good deal of the company's recent activity has been predicated.

She was joined by Maggie McLean Suniewick, who had joined in June as VP of partnerships. It speaks to the ongoing realignment of Twitter's strategic goals, which now seems to be moving away from becoming a digital video service.

November 18

Robin Wheeler, Twitter's head of ad sales, confirms in a tweet that she is leaving the company - despite Musk having reportedly convinced her to stay on the 10th.

The Drum asked senior buyers where they expected ad money will go in the event Musk's Twitter2.0 becomes too toxic for advertisers.

November 14

Musk's company SpaceX is reported to have purchased a large number of ads on Twitter, presumably to shore up the "massive" revenue drop Musk referred to last week.

November 13

Musk claims incorrectly that Twitter is the "biggest click driver on the Internet by far", and is immediately fact-checked using Twitter's user-based fact-checking service. Users are correct: Twitter, at its peak, drove around as much traffic to websites as Pinterest, and far less than Facebook.

Platformer has reported that Twitter has let between 4,400 and 5,500 contractors go - in addition to the roughly 50% of its core workforce fired last week. These contractors are reportedly responsible for many aspects of the site's running - but many were responsible for moderating disinformation on the platform, adding to advertisers' disquiet.

Musk has also responded to a US senator asking why his account was impersonated with insults. Said senator - Ed Markey - responded that Musk needs to "fix" his companies, "or Congress will".

November 11

Twitter reactivates its new ’Official’ labeling for some organizations and individuals, after the issues around impersonation.

Musk’s plans for subscriptions to make up half of Twitter’s revenue look to have hit an iceberg, as users report that the ability to sign up for the $7.99 service appears to have disappeared from the iOS app.

The fallout from the job losses and resignations has also raised concerns about potential fines. Robin Wheeler, who was reported to have left the company on November 10, now appears to have been convinced to stay.

Musk has since disputed the reports of any violations.

Musk also attempts to clarify rules around parody accounts, which have been at the center of the issue around impersonation – and in some cases outright banned.

November 10

The new pay-to-play verification system immediately runs into issues, with huge brands and prominent individuals being impersonated and verified by new Twitter.

As a result, Twitter announces it will be tackling this impersonation a priority. There are, however, still legal issues to be considered around the idea of paying for verification.

Additionally, the fallout from previous days sees advertisers more uncertain than ever about the future of Twitter.

Musk’s latest missive to Twitter employees states that bankruptcy was a potential future for the company if it could not transition to getting 50% of its revenue from subscriptions. Analysts are unsure about the viability of Twitter Blue in its current form as a means of driving subscriptions: with no roadmap in place for the other features Musk has announced for the service, it is unclear what potential subscribers would be paying for.

For advertisers, the uncertainty is compounded by an hour-long Twitter Space in which Musk attempts once again to quell fears about the future of brand safety on the platform. He is joined on the call by Yoel Roth – who had been very visible and proactive in deciphering and disseminating Musk’s commandments in the days since he took over – and Robin Wheeler, the company’s effective head of sales.

Roth announces he is stepping down from the company less than 24 hours later.

His resignation follows that of other key Twitter figures, including its chief privacy officer Damien Kieran, its chief compliance officer Marianne Fogarty and – most worryingly – its chief information security officer Lea Kissner.

A lawyer within Twitter also posts a warning in the company’s internal Slack that Musk’s rapid changes are putting the company at risk of fines worth billions of dollars by the FTC. That in turn follows lawsuits being filed or threatened around the scale and manner in which 50% of the company was let go.

November 9

Musk announces he would consider putting all of Twitter behind a paywall, spooking advertisers for whom the platform’s appeal has been its outsized influence as a digital town square.

Additionally, advertisers fail to be reassured by Musk’s calls. MMA Global’s Lou Paskalis tweets at the new Twitter owner: “As you heard overwhelmingly from senior advertisers on the call, the issue concerning us all is content moderation and its impact on brand safety/suitability. You say you’re committed to moderation, but you just laid off 75% of the moderation team!”

November 8

It isn’t just advertisers that are concerned by the scale of mis- and disinformation set to be available on the platform under Musk’s new regime. News outlets are wary of the changes ahead of the US midterms – though Twitter later says that no changes would be incoming until after the elections.

Meanwhile, Australia’s digital safety commissioner Julie Inman Grant tells the senate that she is concerned about the impact the huge job cuts would have on the ability to counter disinformation on the platform. She states: ”If you make it a pay-for-play type of proposition, it turns that whole justification for having such a system on its head, it’s simply paying for a subscription service and not only will not provide those protections, but I think can open the platform up to much more malfeasance, impersonation and fake accounts and possibly with state-sponsored information operations as well.”

November 7

Twitter attempts to allay concerns about the proportion of hate speech on the platform, after anecdotal and data-led reports of a rise in unacceptable behavior and the use of slurs. It states: ”Levels of hate speech remain within historical norms, representing 0.25% to 0.45% of tweets per day among hundreds of millions.”

The platform also claims daily active users are up since Musk’s takeover.

Despite that, Musk also threatens to ”name and shame” advertisers that have pulled spend.

November 6

As part of his stated aim to make Twitter a place where creators can be rewarded for content, Musk attempts to lure YouTube creators over to the platform. In a series of interactions with video creators, he says the platform is planning “creator monetization for all forms of content” with terms that would bear the 55% cut of advertising revenue that YouTube gives its top entertainers.

At the time of writing, no further plans are known, with Musk giving a two-week timeline for the details to emerge.

November 4

Musk tweets that Twitter has suffered a ”massive” drop in revenue, which he attempts to pin on activists causing brands to pull ad spend on the platform. This is undercut by the visibility of marketing officers tweeting their own experiences with the company, many of whom explicitly refute the idea they were being influenced by activists.

This follows news that some of the biggest brands in the world had halted spend or otherwise chosen to reduce their presence on the platform. Even before the job losses, major brands were reappraising their plans. A spokesperson for General Motors, for example, states: “We are engaging with Twitter to understand the direction of the platform under [its] new ownership. As is the normal course of business with a significant change in a media platform, we have temporarily paused our paid advertising. Our customer care interactions on Twitter will continue.”

Update: Our own reporting shows that some media buyers are in fact advising clients to continue spending on the platform.

November 1

More of Musk’s plans for Twitter begin to emerge, with one of his primary reported aims being the revival of Vine, the short-form video platform that paved the way for Reels and TikTok, but which was shuttered by Twitter in 2016.

Given that video advertising delivers higher yields, it is likely this is an attempt to shore up Twitter’s advertising revenue. It is reported that Musk’s takeover plans are predicated on shifting focus from its current advertising strategy to one focusing foremost on subscription revenue.

October 30

The challenges around countering disinformation on Musk’s Twitter are brought home when the man himself shares an unfounded conspiracy theory uncritically. He later deletes the tweet.

October 28

Elon Musk officially takes over as owner of Twitter, making the announcement by tweeting that ”the bird is freed” and a number of meme-related tweets. There are confirmed reports that one of his first acts is to fire Parag Agrawal, chief financial officer Ned Segal and head of legal policy, trust and safety Vijaya Gadde.

This follows months of speculation about what impact Musk’s self-proclaimed free speech absolutism would have on the platform’s safety for brands, with his stated aim being to bring banned figures like Donald Trump back into the fold. This uncertainty also leads to many brands choosing not to prepurchase at the latest Upfronts event.

For brands, the uncertainty began when Musk initially launched his takeover attempt – but it only gets much worse as he officially takes over.

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