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Digital Transformation Brand Strategy Future of Media

With Trump and Kanye back on Twitter, fleeing advertisers’ fears are ‘completely founded’

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By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

November 21, 2022 | 10 min read

While Twitter may not fold amid mass resignations and ongoing layoffs as some predicted last week, it’s at risk of ostracizing more advertisers by welcoming back highly divisive voices.

Trump's Twitter account

Elon Musk has reinstated the Twitter accounts of previously-suspended users including Donald Trump / Adobe Stock

Billionaire Elon Musk, in his latest divisive move as Twitter’s owner, has reinstated a handful of previously-suspended Twitter accounts, including those belonging to former US president Donald Trump and rapper Kanye West, also known as Ye. This follows a turbulent month that’s seen mass layoffs followed by mass resignations, advertisers running for the hills amid content moderation concerns and flip-flopping platform changes.

Both celebrities had seen their accounts removed for violating the platform’s content policies, including rules around hate speech and speech that incites violence. West was suspended less than a month ago after posting a string of antisemitic tweets that also resulted in the loss of major brand deals. Trump, meanwhile, was banned from Twitter just two days after the January 6 2021 riots at the US Capitol – at the time, the platform published a blog post documenting the many ways that the former president violated its rules.

Now Musk has reinstated both accounts, along with a handful of others that had previously been suspended. The decision came after the Tesla and SpaceX chief exec polled Twitter users over the weekend on whether or not Trump should be allowed back on the platform. Some 52% of respondents expressed their support for his return, though the entertainer-turned-politician has since responded that he’ll stay on his own social site Truth Social (which has seen a growth spurt of late).

West, meanwhile, sent out a test tweet Sunday afternoon, which he followed in the evening with a tweet reading: “Shalom : ),” a clear nod to the reasons behind his suspension, which took place before Musk took over the platform. West in October completed the acquisition of Parler, a social site and ‘tech services’ organization favored among the far-right.

The decision from Musk comes just over two weeks after he tweeted: “Twitter needs to become by far the most accurate source of information in the world. That’s our mission.”

Some users are pointing out the apparent hypocrisy in that statement in light of the executive’s decision to welcome Trump, West and other formerly-banned accounts back.

tweet

Others, however, are celebrating the decision and view it as consistent with Musk’s prior statements about prioritizing free speech on the platform.

lavern

Now, experts are assessing the potential business impact of the decision to grant Twitter access to divisive figures who have historically violated Twitter’s content policies and stoked misinformation on the platform.

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.”

Pulizzi predicts that Musk will try to keep both Trump and West on the platform “for as long as possible” – regardless of whether or not they violate the platform’s terms of use, “because Twitter is more interesting with them than without them.”

If this strategy works – and Twitter sees its user base and engagement metrics rise – it will spell dollar signs for Musk.

Others have expressed differing predictions. Kara Swisher, a popular journalist who has covered internet-related news, predicts that Musk may as soon boot Trump from the platform for rule violations to appease the left just as soon as he reinstated Trump to satiate the ‘free speech’ demands of the right. “If Trump returns ... he’ll violate the rules egregiously and Elon will toss him,” Swisher wrote in a tweet Saturday night. “Then, as a smart person just said to me, he’ll have the best of both worlds.” In short, Musk may be able to win brownie points on both sides of the aisle by bringing Trump back only to kick him off later.

A ‘completely unhinged’ Twitter

Regardless of whether or not Musk or West see their accounts suspended again, much of the damage has already been done. Advertising previously accounted for some 90% of Twitter’s total revenue. But with major brands including Volkswagen, Pfizer, General Motors and Audi pausing ad spend on Twitter amid concerns about an influx of hate speech and misinformation – and the world’s biggest advertising holding companies including IPG and Havas advising clients to drop Twitter – the platform is bleeding.

And advertisers’ fears are “completely founded,” says Ellie Bamford, senior vice-president, global head of media and connections at R/GA, an IPG agency. She points out that the use of racial slurs on Twitter shot up almost 500% in the 12 hours after Musk’s takeover deal was finalized – and that is symptomatic of a larger, troubling trend. “Bottom line: brands don’t want to be associated with controversy or negativity. Relaxing regulations on the platform makes it a dangerous place to put media investment – and a dangerous place to be as a user. The big question that any advertiser should be thinking about when they’re in a media environment is, ‘What content am I going to be next to?’ And right now on Twitter that is completely unhinged.”

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It’s not just ad agencies and brands weighing in on the conversation. A group of some 60 activist groups including the Anti-Defamation League and GLAAD have banded together to form an initiative dubbed StopToxicTwitter, calling on advertisers to commit to ceasing all advertising activity on Twitter globally. They’re also campaigning for a preservation of Twitter’s existing content moderation policies and urging Musk to crack down on harassment, hate speech and misinformation.

Bamford believes that the decision to allow voices like Trump’s and West’s back on to Twitter will only hurt the platform, which previously put advertisers at the heart of its business model. “Reinstating banned accounts from many notorious people will send more users and advertisers – and Twitter employees – running for the hills,” she says.

The latter point – about spooking Twitter employees – is especially salient considering that last week more than 1,000 staffers resigned in response to an ultimatum that Musk issued demanding that workers commit to long, intense hours or leave the company immediately. Many fear that as the app loses critical staff – from engineers to content moderators and legal advisors – it could be on the brink of buckling.

Pulizzi, for his part, believes those fears to be somewhat overblown. “In our community, so many creators have been leaving the platform or talking about leaving. Regardless, I believe Twitter is here to stay, and there will be some kind of business model that will ultimately work,” he says. What that model looks like remains to be seen, but Pulizzi anticipates that it will likely include “a combination of subscription and data services.”

If one thing is clear, however, it’s that even if Musk’s Twitter finds a way to flourish, many brands won’t go back. “The advice that we – at R/GA and at IPG – are giving to all our clients is: if you are still advertising on Twitter, wake up, pay attention and stop now,” says Bamford. ”Your response as a brand matters to not only your customers but your employees as well.”

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