Twitter: with Donald Trump, Elon Musk revives the anger business

Anger is a business. Elon Musk knows this well. The new boss of the blue bird decided on November 20 to reopen Donald Trump’s Twitter account on the basis of an “investigation” carried out in haste on the network. The former US president had lost access to his account in January 2021 after he white-hot his supporters with tweets challenging the legitimacy of the US presidential election – before and in the aftermath of the bloody assault on Capitol Hill. The network then made the decision to shut it down permanently, believing that some of these messages amounted to “incitement to violence”.

Elon Musk always uses the same argument to justify elections like reactivating Donald Trump’s account: he wants to defend “freedom of speech”. The truth is more prosaic: posts that generate anger and outrage are the EPO of social media. These publications evoke such strong emotions that they capture Internet users and often generate more reactions than positive or informative messages.

The reason for this is simple. Those who approve of a hate message share it with gusto, but those who disapprove also give it visibility by condemning it – the networks highlight what provokes reactions, good and bad. Many clever people take advantage of it by deliberately publishing horrors to increase the visibility of their account. Some even use this thread to promote more or less smoky projects. Last May, Lucie Ronfaut’s Rule 30 newsletter analyzed an eloquent example of this drive by focusing on the author of a misogynistic thread that claimed on Twitter that women had no place in IT development. This internet user’s words had evidently provoked a number of reactions – outraged for a good number of them. However, when the thread became highly visible on the network, the author had engaged in… the promotion of a crypto project.

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Pissed Emoji Rain

Internet users are not the only ones who have understood the martingale. Social networks are well aware of the viral power of indignation and use it to their advantage. Six years ago, Facebook made a seemingly anecdotal choice, actually a big one: offering “reaction” emojis to a publication. Next to “I like” (thumbs up) is added a heart, a funny smiley, another surprised, a sad face and finally a pissed off emoji.

For the Internet user, the option has its uses: to indicate more precisely to his relatives what he thinks about a content. But as a thorough investigation of washington postbased on the revelations of whistleblower Frances Haugen, Mark Zuckerberg’s network for a time favored content that provoked these stronger reactions, including this angry emoji, on the assumption that it would increase interest in its service.

For a long time, social networks have taken shelter behind the idea that they are not responsible for the content that circulates on their platform, content to “host” it. If there is hatred online, it would not be their fault, but ours, malicious humans that we are, unable to politely interact with our fellow human beings. However, when deciding the rules for sorting out what content should be displayed or not, these platforms have a colossal influence on the overall tone of the global conversation. And the result of their choice is that in the digital agora the tone rises more and more.

As these abuses have become more visible and contested, platforms like Twitter have intentionally begun to acknowledge and work on their responsibility for spreading violent content and fake news. The sorting of huge amounts of messages that they carry out is extremely complex, it must be acknowledged. The trade-offs that must be made have also been the subject of intense internal debate on, for example, Facebook. And the social network of the Meta group has finally stopped taking into account the presence of these famous angry emojis.

Racist messages and Nazi memes

When Elon Musk promised to restore “freedom of speech” on the bluebird, supporters of online hate therefore rubbed their hands. The billionaire vowed to make Twitter a “truth business” and fight the scourge of fake accounts. But his actions since taking over suggest that he is betting much more on the “anger business”. As soon as the takeover was confirmed, some netizens also posted waves of racist messages and Nazi memes augmented by fake accounts to show they no longer feared the sanctions.

These issues don’t seem to worry the new owner any more than that, which has its eyes riveted on the traffic recorded by the blue bird. “The use of Twitter has never been so high. One thing is certain: we are not bored there at the moment”, he wrote on November 10, congratulating himself the day after the network had broken a record number of active users on the day . We might not be bored. But the quality of the show can leave something to be desired.


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