Elon Musk reactivated Donald Trump’s Twitter account last weekend, reversing a ban imposed in January 2021 after his posts were deemed to have incited violence at the US Capitol. Trump has not started using his account again, but social media researchers have warned for months that his return could bring a wave of division and disinformation on the platform. Even without his controversial presence, a new analysis of millions of tweets shows that hate speech has become more visible on Twitter under Musk’s leadership.
Researchers at Tufts University’s Digital Planet group tracked hate speech on Twitter before and after Musk took ownership of the company in late October. To do this, they used a data stream the platform provides that’s known as the firehose—a feed of every public tweet, like, retweet, and reply shared across the platform. The group has used the same approach in previous studies, including one looking at toxicity on Twitter around the US midterm elections.
To study how Musk’s ownership changed Twitter, the researchers searched through tweets posted between March 1 and November 13 of this year, collecting the 20 most popular—as determined by a combination of followers, likes, and retweets—with keywords that could indicate anti-LGBTQ+, racist, or antisemitic intent. They then reviewed the language of those tweets in each of the three categories and attempted to judge their true intent.
For the months prior to Musk’s takeover, the researchers deemed just one tweet out of the three top 20 lists to be actually hateful, in this case against Jewish people. The others were either quoting another person’s hateful remarks or using the relevant key words in a non-hateful way.
In the weeks after Musk took over Twitter, the same analysis found that hateful tweets became much more prominent among the most popular tweets with potentially toxic language. For tweets using words associated with anti-LGBTQ+ or antisemitic posts, seven of the top 20 posts in each category were now hateful. For popular tweets using potentially racist language, one of the top 20 was judged to be hate speech.
“The toxicity of Twitter has severely increased post-Musk’s walking into that building,” says Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher Business School at Tufts University and chair of Digital Planet, which carried out the analysis.
This data could add to the challenges Musk faces as he attempts a turnaround for the company, which he has loaded with debt. Advertisers provide the majority of Twitter’s revenue, but some have said in recent weeks that they will reduce or pause spending until they learn more about any changes to the platform’s content policies. “Advertisers cannot invest their dollars on platforms where comprehensive policies on hate speech and misinformation are not in place and consistently enforced,” says Lou Paskalis, a long-time ad executive who previously served as president of MMA Global, a marketing trade group.
The Tufts analysis does not indicate whether the increase in hate speech stems from specific changes made by Musk after he acquired Twitter for $44 million last month. Although he initially claimed that the company’s policies would not change, he also laid off thousands of staff and contractors, reducing the resources Twitter could bring to bear on policing content. In some countries where the platform is popular, such as Brazil, activists and researchers who track disinformation say there is no longer anyone at Twitter to respond to their warnings and requests.
Amazon built an ecommerce empire by automating much of the work needed to move goods and pack orders in its warehouses. There is still plenty of work for humans in those vast facilities because some tasks are too complex for robots to do reliably—but a new robot called Sparrow could shift the balance that Amazon strikes between people and machines.
Sparrow is designed to pick out items piled in shelves or bins so they can be packed into orders for shipping to customers. That’s one of the most difficult tasks in warehouse robotics because there are so many different objects, each with different shapes, textures, and malleability, that can be piled up haphazardly. Sparrow takes on that challenge by using machine learning and cameras to identify objects piled in a bin and plan how to grab one using a custom gripper with several suction tubes. Amazon demonstrated Sparrow for the first time today at the company’s robotics manufacturing facility in Massachusetts.
Amazon is currently testing Sparrow at a facility in Texas where the robot is already sorting products for customer orders. The company says Sparrow can handle 65 percent of the more than 100 million items in its inventory. Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, says that range is the most impressive thing about the robot. “No one has the inventory that Amazon has,” he says. Sparrow can grasp DVDs, socks, and stuffies, but still struggles with loose or complex packaging.
Making machines capable of picking a wide range of individual objects with close to the accuracy and speed of humans could transform the economics of ecommerce. A number of robotics companies, including Berkshire Grey, Righthand Robotics, and Locus Robotics, already sell systems capable of picking objects in warehouses. Startup Covariant specializes in having robots learn how to handle items it hasn’t seen before on the job. But matching the ability of humans to handle any object reliably, and at high speed, remains out of reach for robots. A human can typically pick about 100 items per hour in a warehouse. Brady declined to say how quickly Sparrow can pick items, saying that the robot is “learning all the time.”
Automating more work inside warehouses naturally leads to thoughts of the specter of robots displacing humans. So far, the relationship between robotics and human workers in workplaces has been more complex. For instance, Amazon has increased its workforce even as it has rolled out more automation, as its business has continued to grow. The company appears sensitive to the perception that robots can disadvantage humans. At the event today the company spotlighted employees who had gone from low-level jobs to more advanced ones. However, internal data obtained by Reveal has suggested Amazon workers at more automated facilities suffer more injuries because the pace of work is faster. The company has claimed that robotics and other technology makes its facilities safer.
When asked about worker replacement, Brady said the role of robots is misunderstood. “I don’t view it as replacing people,” he said. “It’s humans and machines working together—not humans versus machines—and if I can allow people to focus on higher level tasks, that’s the win.”
Robots have become notably more capable in recent years, although it can be difficult to distinguish hype from reality. While Elon Musk and others show off futuristic humanoid robots that are many years from being useful, Amazon has quietly gone about automating a large proportion of its operations. The ecommerce company says it now manufactures more industrial robots per year than any company in the world.
Use of industrial robots is growing steadily. In October, the International Federation of Robotics reported that companies around the world installed 517,385 new robots during 2021, a 31 percent increase year-on-year, and a new record for the industry. Many of those new machines are either mobile robots that wheel around factories and warehouses carrying goods or examples of the relatively new concept of “collaborative” robots that are designed to be safe to work alongside humans. Amazon this year introduced a collaborative robot of its own called Proteus, which ferries shelves stacked with products around a warehouse, avoiding human workers as it goes.
At its event today, Amazon also demonstrated a new delivery drone, called MK30, that is capable of carrying loads of up to 5 pounds. Amazon has been testing drone delivery in Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas, and says the new, more efficient drone will go into service in 2024. The company also showcased a new electric delivery vehicle made by Rivian that includes custom safety systems for collision warning and automatic braking, as well as a system called Fleet Edge that gathers street-view footage and GPS data to improve delivery routing.
In response, CZ dropped a bombshell on Twitter: Binance would sell off its entire FTT holding. He claimed the intention was to sell “in a way that minimizes market impact,” but the announcement led to a steep drop in the price of FTT (the token has lost almost 90 percent of its value) and a surge in withdrawals at FTX as customers began to panic about the safety of their crypto.
Bankman-Fried initially denied rumors of insolvency on November 7, claiming that “a competitor is trying to go after us with false rumors” and that “FTX is fine.” (These tweets have since been deleted.) It later became clear the company was scrambling to secure a bailout.
CZ has denied that he deliberately created a liquidity crisis at FTX—“I spend my energy building, not fighting,” he tweeted on November 7—but Tim Mangnall, whose company Capital Block has consulted for both Binance and FTX, says this was a “shrewd” business maneuver by CZ, one that allowed him to “buy one of his biggest competitors for pennies on the dollar.”
All Hail CZ, King of Crypto
Binance has now rejected that deal. The crisis at FTX likely reinforces its rival’s position as the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange. Binance is already larger, by trading volume, than a clutch of its nearest competitors (Coinbase, Kraken, OKX, Bitfinex, Huobi, and FTX) combined.
Binance will now likely hold greater control over the kinds of coins that are widely listed for purchase. By the same token, the influence of CZ, already one of the most prominent figures in the crypto world, will also be magnified in debates around policy and regulation.
For the portion of the community that believes crypto should stand for decentralization, the merging of two of the world’s largest exchanges will also be cause for concern. Decentralization is all about the even distribution of power and eliminating single points of failure, but the fall of FTX supports neither ambition.
After Binance’s rescue plan was first announced, the prices of bitcoin and ether fell by more than 10 percent, wiping out more than $60 billion from the market. They may now fall further.
The implosion of FTX will also raise questions about what should be done to protect crypto owners in the future. One proposal from CZ is that all exchanges should provide transparent “proof of reserves”—in other words, clearly demonstrate they have enough cash on hand to fund customer withdrawals. In a tweet, he promised that Binance will take up this policy “soon.”
Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase, expressed sympathy for FTX but also pointed to “risky business practices” and “conflicts of interest” that left the company exposed—something that, presumably, transparency requirements would also remedy. Separately, Armstrong moved to dismiss concerns that Coinbase might find itself in a similar liquidity crunch: “We hold all assets dollar for dollar,” he wrote on Twitter.
But others say this latest dance with disaster is evidence that people should not store their wealth with exchanges. “What we’re seeing now is a reminder of the importance of crypto custody,” says Pascal Gauthier, CEO at Ledger, which makes wallets to allow people to manage their own crypto. “You don’t own your crypto unless you use self-custody.”
Updated 11-9-2022, 5:30 pm EST: This article has been updated to reflect Binance’s statement that it would not acquire FTX after all.
And for the love of God, don’t blindly take voting advice from Elon Musk.
Take a Walk on the Decentralized Side
Twitter may be much smaller than other social media sites, but it plays an outsize role in public discourse. It’s centralized: You log in and are torpedoed into one endless, messy timeline, where political and media elites chew over the agenda of the day. “While the future may indeed lie in a collection of more specialized, interconnected communities served by Mastodon, Discord, and others,” Chris Riley, senior fellow for internet governance at Tech Policy Press wrote last week, “Twitter will retain one great advantage: Centralized discovery and sharing are still very powerful services, and difficult to replicate in a more distributed system.”
Still, now’s the time to explore other social media services. Mastodon is experiencing a rapid rise in users, as Twitter users flock to it. (Though it’s unclear how many people are still using Twitter, too—my guess is a lot.) The project launched back in 2017 as a nonprofit, open-sourced network of self-hosted servers. It mimics the microblogging timeline of Twitter and allows for likes and amplifications of posts; users can see posts both on their own local, server-specific timeline and on a broader “federated” timeline.
If all that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. In order to sign up, you have to first choose a server, and the sign-up process is slow and buggy. But right now Mastodon has the just-showed-up-to-the-party energy that Twitter lacks. As Justin Pot put it in WIRED’s timely guide, Mastodon is “what Linux would be like if it was a social network … The internet has become corporatized. It’s refreshing to use a service that hasn’t been A/B tested to death.” Also see: BlueSky Social (backed by Jack Dorsey), Cohost, and Counter.
There will be other attempts to build social networks that serve as a digital town square. Mass adoption will require at least some ease of use, plus cultural buy-in. But in the year 2022, maybe an exact replica of Twitter isn’t what we really want, or what society really needs. As Mastodon user Chris Bides put it, “Most people probably shouldn’t want a Twitter replacement. Now is a good time to focus on what we actually like about internet interaction, and go from there.”
Don’t Pay for Twitter Just Yet
I happen to be a subscriber to the original version of Twitter’s premium tier, Blue, which means I’ve been paying $5 a month for access to features like being able to undo or edit tweets. Now, under Musk, Twitter Blue has morphed into an $8-a-month moving target, a service that offers blue-check verification for a fee. The rollout has been chaotic (you’ll notice repeat usage of this word).
On Saturday, Twitter was updated in Apple’s App Store with a note saying that users who sign up can receive the blue check “just like the celebrities, companies and politicians you already follow.” Now the launch of Twitter Blue has reportedly been delayed until November 9, after the US midterm elections.
As more and more problems with AI have surfaced, including biases around race, gender, and age, many tech companies have installed “ethical AI” teams ostensibly dedicated to identifying and mitigating such issues.
Twitter’s META unit was more progressive than most in publishing details of problems with the company’s AI systems, and in allowing outside researchers to probe its algorithms for new issues.
Last year, after Twitter users noticed that a photo-cropping algorithm seemed to favor white faces when choosing how to trim images, Twitter took the unusual decision to let its META unit publish details of the bias it uncovered. The group also launched one of the first ever “bias bounty” contests, which let outside researchers test the algorithm for other problems. Last October, Chowdhury’s team also published details of unintentional political bias on Twitter, showing how right-leaning news sources were, in fact, promoted more than left-leaning ones.
Many outside researchers saw the layoffs as a blow, not just for Twitter but for efforts to improve AI. “What a tragedy,” Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington who studies online disinformation, wrote on Twitter.
“The META team was one of the only good case studies of a tech company running an AI ethics group that interacts with the public and academia with substantial credibility,” says Ali Alkhatib, director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco.
Alkhatib says Chowdhury is incredibly well thought of within the AI ethics community and her team did genuinely valuable work holding Big Tech to account. “There aren’t many corporate ethics teams worth taking seriously,” he says. “This was one of the ones whose work I taught in classes.”
Mark Riedl, a professor studying AI at Georgia Tech, says the algorithms that Twitter and other social media giants use have a huge impact on people’s lives, and need to be studied. “Whether META had any impact inside Twitter is hard to discern from the outside, but the promise was there,” he says.
Riedl adds that letting outsiders probe Twitter’s algorithms was an important step toward more transparency and understanding of issues around AI. “They were becoming a watchdog that could help the rest of us understand how AI was affecting us,” he says. “The researchers at META had outstanding credentials with long histories of studying AI for social good.”
As for Musk’s idea of open-sourcing the Twitter algorithm, the reality would be far more complicated. There are many different algorithms that affect the way information is surfaced, and it’s challenging to understand them without the real time data they are being fed in terms of tweets, views, and likes.
The idea that there is one algorithm with explicit political leaning might oversimplify a system that can harbor more insidious biases and problems. Uncovering these is precisely the kind of work that Twitter’s META group was doing. “There aren’t many groups that rigorously study their own algorithms’ biases and errors,” says Alkhatib at the University of San Francisco. “META did that.” And now, it doesn’t.