Jessica Heygate
Apr 27, 2022

How might Elon Musk’s free-speech stance affect Twitter advertisers?

The billionaire entrepreneur sees Twitter as a “digital town square,” but industry observers have serious concerns that unraveling content restrictions could open the door to toxicity, mis- and disinformation—and an advertising exodus.

How might Elon Musk’s free-speech stance affect Twitter advertisers?

Twitter’s new owner—subject to regulatory approval—has promised to champion free speech on the platform. He has hinted at relaxing the company’s moderation policies, dividing users and raising alarm bells in adland.

Elon Musk has proposed several major changes to Twitter since he became a major shareholder in early April, a move that triggered immediate concerns among the advertising community, according to Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO of the 4A’s, a trade association for advertising agencies.

“Even from the beginning when Musk took his 9% stake in Twitter, we had people reach out and say ‘what are we going to do, what does this mean?’” Kaplowitz told Campaign.

Now, facing the prospect that Musk’s proposed changes to Twitter could come to fruition after his takeover bid was approved on Monday, concerns have intensified.

In particular, advertisers are worried that Twitter will become an unsafe environment should Musk succeed in loosening content moderation rules, as he has suggested. The self-described “free-speech absolutist” said earlier this month that Twitter’s content moderators intervene too much on the platform, which he views as “the digital town square.”

Twitter's current content policies have resulted in various high-profile figures being banned from the platform, including former U.S. President Donald Trump, who was permanently suspended in January 2021 following the Jan 6 Capitol riot. Trump said on Monday he wouldn’t return to the platform even if his ban was revoked.

If banned figures are reinstated and speech is unrestricted, some are concerned that Twitter could quickly devolve into a toxic platform, which advertisers will steer clear from.

Angelo Carusone, president of liberal media watchdog Media Matters, has raised concerns about Musk “opening the floodgates of hate and lies” by rolling back protections against harassment, abuse and disinformation in the name of free speech.

Carusone said in a statement that “accountability now rests with Twitter’s top advertisers, who need to make it clear that if Twitter becomes a free-for-all of hate, extremism and disinformation — they will walk.”

He also called on Apple and Google to “hold Twitter to the same standards they applied to other apps such as Parler,” the conservative social media app which was removed from Apple and Google’s app stores after the Jan. 6 attack following accusations that it was being used to plan the riots.

Advertisers have demanded that social media platforms regulate content to protect their brands from appearing next to unsavory or illegal content, a practice commonly known as brand safety.

Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence at GroupM, explained: “Advertisers generally want to be associated with free expression, they don't want to be associated with things that are illegal. When there is a gray area, it can be very problematic.”

“There is a strong preference on the part of advertisers — at least among larger brands — to support platforms that credibly claim they are trying,” he added “You could argue that problematic content is outpacing efforts to contain it. But the important thing is to be seen to be trying, and not reversing.”

Kaplowitz suggested Twitter will face “serious implications” if its efforts to protect brand safety and stem the spread of mis- and disinformation wanes.

“Twitter has made a true commitment in the past couple of years to address brand safety and suitability, working with the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, the 4A’s Advertiser Protection Bureau, and committing to an MRC audit of their brand safety measurement,” she said.

“Misinformation and disinformation is the area where we have seen an increase in investment in the past several years as well as a significant amount of concern. If it is not taken seriously in the future it will have serious implications,” she added.

From conquering space to conquering the internet

Musk is known for a variety of ventures including electric vehicles and space exploration, but owning a key social media platform provides the world’s richest person with a new form of power.

Twitter had 217 million daily active users as of Q4 2021, with 38 million users in the U.S. It is the ninth most-visited site globally, according to a We Are Social and Hootsuite report. An audience of this size has the power to sway politics and public decision-making — which is why Twitter has been scrutinized for its role in disseminating political mis- and disinformation that could have influenced the 2016 U.S. election.

Internet users, increasingly aware of the dangers of social media, may choose to decamp from the platform should protections be rolled back. Shortly after the deal was announced, the hashtag #leavingtwitter began trending on the platform and articles sprouted up highlighting “Twitter alternatives”. But the hashtag has also been co-opted by conservatives and free speech advocates, who argue that those threatening to leave were afraid of their political opponents. A loosening of rules has been broadly welcomed by U.S. conservatives.

Even if Twitter’s user numbers stay the same, its audience composition may shift, Kaplowitz suggests, which will have an impact on advertising.

An advertising opponent

The advertising community is also worried that it won’t be prioritised by Musk, who has made it clear that he doesn’t see value in marketing. Earlier in April he suggested removing ads from Twitter’s premium subscription service, Twitter Blue, in a now-deleted Tweet.

“[Elon Musk] hasn’t been someone who has embraced advertising or demonstrated an interest in advertising, so that is a concern for people on where Twitter is going,” Kaplowitz said.

GroupM’s Wieser suggested that Musk’s stance may shift once the reality of debt he has accumulated to purchase Twitter sinks in.

“There needs to be cash flow to support the debt that has been raised. Presuming that Musk is not the only equity investor, it is hard to imagine doing things that would cause the advertising business to deteriorate in a meaningful way, which is what would happen in a free speech absolutist scenario,” he said. He added that it would be tricky to make a subscription model financially viable quick enough to appease investors.

It’s unclear how far Musk might go, as well as how much power he might have to alter Twitter’s policy. Governments across the world are cracking down on free speech, while regulators are enforcing stricter controls on social media platforms. The European Union warned Twitter on Tuesday that it must “comply with our rules” under its new ownership, or face sanctions. “It’s not your rules which will apply here," Thierry Breton, the EU's internal market commissioner, told the Financial Times.

Broadly proclaiming to protect free speech also overlooks nuances. Twitter has separated free speech and the amplification of speech in its principles, for example. It states: “Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right — but freedom to have that speech amplified by Twitter is not. Our rules exist to promote healthy conversations.”

Campaign US

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