“The bird is freed” tweeted Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, upon finalising his $44 billion takeover of the social media platform Twitter.
In the 12 hours following Musk’s takeover, Twitter saw what researchers described as an "immediate, visible and measurable spike" in hate speech, leaving many to fear that the platform under Musk, who has described himself as a "free speech absolutist", was about to become a Wild West where anything goes and where the very worst trolls could thrive.
Users were quick to express their concern, with a popular response to Musk's "the bird is freed" tweet being "Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequence."
Musk has since declared that he will form a new “content moderation council”. And that “No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before the council convenes,” he tweeted.
But users were not the only ones alarmed. Big advertisers seem none too enamoured with Musk's idea for the "bird being freed" either, sparking concerns around trust and brand safety.
In the US, General Motors temporarily paused paid advertising on Twitter the day after Musk's takeover. Meanwhile, ad giants Mediabrands and IPG have advised brands to suspend all paid advertising on Twitter for at least a week.
A spokesperson for Omnicom Media Group told Campaign: "We are in close contact with Twitter as we assess the impact of new ownership and potential changes in their strategy. It’s understandable that uncertainty of this kind raises concerns among advertisers, and we are providing guidance to clients so they can make informed decisions.”
It's not just the US where advertisers are concerned
"Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter is a concern for advertisers everywhere, it's just the extent that differs," says Antonio Panuccio, digital strategist, media at Enigma.
"In Europe, they will be watching closely that Twitter complies with their tougher legislation i.e. the Digital Services Act (DSA) and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In the United States, where polarisation of ideology and sensitivity to brand safety is high, advertisers will be quick to pause and evaluate the potential damage.
Australia sits in the middle. Advertisers highly sensitive to brand safety will take a more careful approach as Musk rolls out his changes,” adds Panuccio. “Others will be watching whether Twitter remains valuable to them as user count fluctuates from his takeover (for better or worse), as well as impressions."
Japan is Twitter's second biggest market globally with around 58.2 million active users, but so far they appear to be taking a more 'wait and see' approach.
"Everyone is watching with a lot of anxiety and curiosity," says Pete Lin, CEO North Asia at We Are Social. "Our clients in Japan, where Twitter is one of the most popular social platforms, have not reduced activity or spend due to the takeover. Our clients with global brands in China are also observing the situation but are not making any rash decisions."
But overall, while advertisers in the US are taking a more active stance, in APAC the impact is limited as of right now, simply as a result of how Twitter is utilised in the region, says Tim Durgan, regional VP of strategy & insights, APAC, at Assembly.
"Take Japan, for instance, Twitter’s second-largest market globally. The platform is used more for general communications around news, events and natural disasters," says Durgan. While users may also use Twitter to share their opinions anonymously, much of the commentary surrounds brand, product or service reviews. Therefore, if the attention is on the monitoring of harmful content, we believe it won’t significantly impact how users in APAC are utilising the platform.
If Twitter loses advertisers, who stands to gain them?
Active users of Twitter have already reported a loss of followers since Musk's takeover. Meanwhile, many are looking for a new home with social media platforms like Mastodon gaining 70,000 users the day after Musk's Twitter takeover alone. The question remains whether advertisers will start jumping ship as well, and which platforms will ad-spend be shifted to?
"If significant changes occur at Twitter due to the new ownership, I believe that, in the short run, our clients would double down on Instagram," says We Are Social's Lin. "Even though the engagement mechanism is significantly different."
Tessa Conrad, head of Innovation at TBWA\Asia says that while Twitter is less popular throughout Asia than in the US and EU; their clients do have some ad-spend there.
"I doubt Twitter will lose advertisers for long unless drastic changes continue and/or their effects are widely felt," says Conrad. "That said, if advertisers were looking to move away from Twitter, the question of where they’d move to would depend on what objectives they are trying to achieve."
Meanwhile, Panuccio of Enigma says that right now, there is nothing quite like Twitter out there with middling popularity.
"The closest 'big' platforms for the Twitter-base to migrate to would be LinkedIn but that's a stretch, says Panuccio. "But after TikTok's rocketing rise, the replacement-of-choice might be something not yet on anyone's lips."
Panuccio adds that “we could be moving toward Bluesky Social, Jack Dorsey's (co-founder/former CEO of Twitter) newly in-beta social platform, but there’s no launch date yet. And there are various more privacy-centric Twitter-like platforms out there such as Mastodon.”
What will Twitter need to do in order to win back advertiser confidence?
Musk has already made it clear that he wants to make the platform less reliant on advertising, and previously tweeted “I hate advertising”. But he will need to confront the reality that about 90% of Twitter’s revenue comes from advertising.
Musk recently wrote an open letter to advertisers stressing that he doesn't want the platform to become a “free-for-all hellscape.” And his team recently “met with the marketing and advertising community” in New York, according to Jason Calacanis, a member of Musk’s inner circle.
"To maintain advertiser confidence, Musk first has to keep consumer confidence to ensure Twitter doesn't face a viable competitor in the niche it sits in," says Panuccio. "He has to abide by regulations such as the DSA and GDPR and take heed of advice from industry bodies such as the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM). And he does have to respect that his pursuit of a "common digital town square" free of echo chambers may need some moderation."
Pete Lin, CEO North Asia at We Are Social, is hopeful that Twitter will not threaten brand safety by allowing pure free speech. "While Musk seems to skew towards free speech, I’m hoping that the new Twitter draws a fair line between what’s right and wrong."
Whatever the future for Twitter, Musk has a challenge on his hands to transform Twitter's business, which has not posted a profit in years. In addition to the announcement that he will start charging $8 for Twitter verification – a blue tick next to a username – in the coming weeks, Musk has also stated that buying Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app – a super app similar to China's WeChat. But some remain sceptical of this ambition.
"I don’t see Twitter becoming a super app like WeChat, because WeChat is only a super app in one country (albeit a very big country) that fosters indigenous technologies," says Lin. "Twitter is too international to gain traction in all its markets as a super app, no matter how far up it stacks its features. Having said that, Elon Musk seems to be able to do the impossible time and time again."
Conrad of TBWA/Asia says that given Twitter still leans more towards western communities, if it wants to be the global WeChat it has a long way to go.
"In today’s world, we’re seeing social platforms constantly stealing from each other in terms of what features and ad products become a part of their roadmap,” says Conrad. “So a little bit of ‘inspiration’ isn’t wrong, but how far that’s taken and whether it can be successful remains to be seen."
And Panuccio at Enigma sees Musk's plan to create a super app not unlike Mark Zuckerberg's ambitions for the metaverse. "Musk and Zuckerberg might haemorrhage millions (and billions) trying to make X and the metaverse happen but they have the capital to limp before they run."
But, ultimately, Panuccio adds, "if the users are there, the advertisers will come – and that will be the Chief Twit's primary job in the short term."