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Under Elon Musk, Twitter has antagonized multiple major news organizations by labeling them state-funded media, appears to have eased restrictions on Russian government accounts and made crude jokes on the front of its headquarters and on Musk’s own Twitter display name.
And that’s just this weekend.
Musk’s antics, which only seem to have escalated this month, threaten to further erode Twitter’s brand value. For months, the company has struggled to retain advertisers and supplement its declining ad business — which previously comprised 90% of its annual revenue — by convincing users to pay up for its Twitter Blue subscription service.
Musk, who is on the hook for large payments to lenders after buying the company for $44 billion, including with significant debt, must either coax hesitant advertisers back to the platform or boost its subscription business -— or both. But his recent erratic moves may only complicate those turnaround efforts.
Late last week, Twitter faced backlash for labeling NPR as a “state-affiliated media” organization akin to foreign propaganda outlets such as Russia’s RT and Sputnik, in an apparent violation of its own policies. NPR CEO John Lansing called Twitter’s move “unacceptable,” and said the organization is “supported by millions of listeners.”
Following the pushback, Twitter changed NPR’s label to “government funded media,” and applied the same designation to British broadcaster BBC over the weekend. Twitter has not given a definition for what it considers “government funded media,” but the BBC pushed back on the label, saying it is independent and “funded by the British public through the license fee.”
The moves risk alienating some of the best-known media organizations in the world and undermining what has long been a key selling point for the platform: its role as a central hub for news. NPR, in particular, has not tweeted from its main account in nearly a week.
While Twitter labeled some news accounts as state-funded, it also appears to have removed some restrictions on Russian government accounts that had been put in place following the outset of Russia’s war in Ukraine, again prompting outrage among some users.
Musk commented on the decision in a tweet Sunday saying: “I’m told Putin called me a war criminal for helping Ukraine, so he’s not exactly my best friend. All news is to some degree propaganda. Let people decide for themselves.”
Twitter, which laid off much of its media relations team last year, did not respond to a request for comment.
The controversial moves come as Twitter continues to face significant business challenges. Analysis firm Similarweb last week reported that traffic to Twitter’s ad portal was down nearly 19% year-over-year in March. Many major advertisers have halted spending on Twitter since Musk’s takeover over concerns about increased hate speech on the platform and massive cuts to the company’s workforce.
Musk has said Twitter is working to improve the platform’s ad targeting to increase value for advertisers. “But all the while there have been distractions,” said Scott Kessler, technology sector lead at research firm Third Bridge, adding that there are “significant questions about the direction that the company is going.” At the same time, online ad spending broadly has contracted over concerns about the economy.
Against that backdrop, Musk’s Twitter has made several head-scratching announcements this month, some of which might only add to its challenges.
Musk previously frustrated some of Twitter’s celebrity users, who have long been a key selling point for the platform, with a promise to remove blue checkmarks from accounts who had been verified under Twitter’s previous system. But it didn’t exactly go to plan — instead of removing checks from all previously verified users, Twitter appeared to target a single account belonging to the New York Times.
Days later, Twitter’s home button was temporarily replaced with doge, the meme representing the cryptocurrency dogecoin, which Musk has promoted. The company also briefly restricted Twitter users from sharing links to a rival platform, upsetting users, including one who had previously reported the so-called Twitter files using documents provided by Musk.
As if to underscore his unique and questionable impact on the brand, the “Chief Twit” has also apparently been keeping busy with changes to Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. Last week, photos began spreading of a piece of plastic covering the “w” in the sign on the front of the company’s office.
At nearly midnight on Sunday, Musk tweeted that the company’s landlord “says we’re legally required to keep sign as Twitter & cannot remove ‘w,’ so we painted it background color,” alongside a photo of the “w” painted white against a white background, leaving a more asinine word in its place. “Problem solved!” Musk tweeted.
If only the same could be said for the platform’s business troubles.