Observers fear that the FIFA World Cup, which started 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 hatred and repeated breakdowns.
On one side is the twittering optimism of Elon Musk, and on the other is Twitter’s army of ominous birds. The CEO of Tesla and new boss of the microblogging site assured, Sunday, November 20, that it was 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 that there will be an unprecedented surge of racist and hateful messages.
For Elon Musk, the stakes of this Football World Cup, which takes place from November 20 to December 18 in Qatar, are high. The competition is one of the most followed events on social networks and will be a test for the new Twitter, at a time of drastic staff reductions. Football was, in 2021, the most commented sport on Twitter, far ahead of basketball, American football and baseball combined, recalled Twitter in a press release at the end of October…a few days before almost the entire communications team was fired by Elon Musk.
Twitter and the lucrative football business
The same applies to the credibility of its new acquisition, especially in the eyes of advertisers. The 2018 World Cup alone drove advertising revenue up 5% for an entire quarter, points out the Wall Street Journal.
No question therefore of knowing hiccups. “The teams have been at work for several weeks to prepare everything for the World Cup,” said said Ella Irwin, vice-president of Twitter in charge of site security, shortly before the kick-off of the first match of the World Cup between Qatar and Ecuador.
She was thus seeking to reassure football fans who were surprised by Elon Musk’s decision to close the premises of Twitter for the weekend of November 20. following a series of group employee resignations. “Are you aware that the World Cup starts on the 20th???”, asked a surfer, visibly doubtful as to the ability of the social network to ensure “the best possible coverage” if the premises were closed.
This exchange with Ella Irwin illustrates the extent to which observers fear that the (stir-) cleaning undertaken by Elon Musk within Twitter will weaken the platform at a time when the World Cup of all controversies begins.
Between the massive layoffs and the series of resignations, the workforce of Twitter – more than 7,500 employees before the arrival of Elon Musk – has “halved in a few weeks”, underlines the British daily The Guardian. Entire teams have sometimes disappeared: “An engineer told us that his service had gone from 75 people … to three”, specifies the Wall Street Journal, in an investigation devoted to Elon Musk’s Twitter facing the challenge of the Cup. world.
Under these conditions, “there is a one in two chance that a major outage will affect Twitter during these two weeks of competition”, assured a former employee of the social network on condition of anonymity, interviewed by the site The Guardian. A third of the teams supposed to ensure that the site can withstand the shock in the event of sharp increases in attendance – such as during a football world – have been thanked by the new CEO.
Nearly 100% of racist tweets maintained
The opening ceremony and Qatar’s loss to Ecuador in the first game of the competition didn’t put Twitter down. But it was not the most anticipated game. The entry into the running of heavyweights, such as Brazil, Germany or even France, should further test the resilience 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 repercussion for their authors, noted the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) – the Center for Countering Digital Hate, in a first analysis whose results could be viewed by The Guardian. British stars Graham Sterling and Bukayo Saka have, in particular, been targeted by this surge of online hatred, specifies the CCDH.
Of a selection of 100 tweets reported in 24 hours calling black players “niggers” or being accompanied by emojis with a clearly racist connotation, 99 were maintained on the platform, reports The Guardian.
However, the moderation rules provide for the censorship of messages of an explicitly racist nature. Except that the moderation teams have, again, been reduced to a trickle since the takeover by Elon Musk. “We are well aware that Twitter operates with a very small staff and this shows in the proliferation of hate messages that are not moderated”, summarizes Pica Johansson, online hate specialist at the Alan Turing Institute in London, 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 were 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 hate on social networks.
But Elon Musk’s promotion of an “absolutist” conception of freedom of expression seems to have further aggravated the situation. It was interpreted as “a signal by all the racists in the world that Twitter was ready to welcome them”, regrets Imran Ahmed, director of the CCDH, interviewed by the Washington Post.
Aware that such a toxic environment of hatred could scare away advertisers, Elon Musk also wanted to put a little water in his wine. He thus assured, Friday, November 19, that hateful tweets would not be highlighted by the algorithms and “that you will have to specifically look for them to find them”.
A guarantee that did not reassure observers fearing the wave of hatred during the world. “All tweets identified [comme racistes] by the CCDH used on Twitter the pseudonyms of the insulted players in their messages”, notes 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 had on this occasion updated all its architecture to better withstand peaks in attendance. Will the 2022 edition prove to Elon Musk that his vision of a reduced-staff Twitter in an increasingly hateful digital world has its limits? Nobody knows.