X, Moral Bankruptcy, and the Business of Hate

An opinion article by Dave Lee published on Bloomberg on 5 October has ignited a conversation about the ethical implications of using X, Elon Musk’s social media platform, formerly known as Twitter.

Despite the platform’s increasing notoriety for promoting violent and divisive content and its prominent role in the spread of fakery, disinformation, and hate, millions of people continue to engage with it daily even though user numbers are declining since Musk acquired Twitter in October 2022 according to reports.

Lee shares an unvarnished perspective on why he believes X is now a place to avoid. And it raises the question: Why do people still use X when it’s clear that it’s becoming a breeding ground for extreme views and behaviours, driven in large part by algorithmically curated timelines and manipulated recommendations?

In his article, Lee describes the grim landscape he encountered in his X timeline following a brutal murder in his New York neighbourhood. A video of the attack, obtained initially by the New York Post, was soon seized upon by haters and trolls on Musk’s platform.

As I rode the subway home to Bedford-Stuyvesant, I watched as the video clocked 1 million views, then 2 million. Up up up. Disgusting replies flooded in by the thousands: That’s what you get for supporting woke policies; should have carried a gun; looks planned. By the time I got home, I had deleted the app from my phone.

Dave Lee, 5 October 2023

Lee makes a compelling case against the ethical standing of X. He argues that the platform’s new incentive structure encourages the sharing of violent and hateful content, thereby degrading the quality of online discourse. Posted on Threads, his personal decision to disengage from the platform serves as a call to action, urging users to reconsider their participation in a space that monetises and amplifies harmful content.

Dave Lee on Threads

So why do people continue using X despite its ethical quandaries?

I’m still a user (since 2006), and I have been grappling with this troubling question for many months. Like Dave Lee, I tell myself that not clicking on the ads, not posting as much as I used to, and not liking or sharing others’ posts so much is fine and kind of justifies my reasoning for continuing on X.

Yet I realise this may all be an illusion, even a masquerade. I may feel I’ve taken a path to the moral high ground, but it’s not really true: all I am doing is, in Lee’s words, continuing to put money into the pockets of haters, trolls and others who use X with evil intent, facilitated by what Elon Musk has created over the past year.

Reality Checks

I see five reasons that might help explain why people who use X continue using the platform in spite of the mounting evidence that this is not a place you really want to be in. This applies, too, if you’re an advertiser.

1: The Illusion of Connection

Social media platforms have become an integral part of our daily lives, offering a space for social interaction in a pervasive digital world. The fear of missing out can be a powerful motivator, keeping people engaged even when they are aware of the platform’s darker aspects (see 4: Cognitive Dissonance below).

2: Lack of Alternatives

Long before Elon Musk appeared on the scene with his Twitter rebranding to X, Twitter had established itself as a major global player in the social media landscape. For many, it was the go-to platform for news, social interaction, business and political networking, and more, and this continues for them with X. The absence of a comparable platform with the same reach and features makes it difficult for users to disengage, whether partly or completely.

3: Algorithmic Manipulation

The role of algorithms cannot be understated. Like many other social networks, X’s algorithm is designed to keep users engaged, feeding them content that elicits strong emotional reactions. This creates a cycle where users can be continuously exposed to more extreme content, normalising it over time and desensitising them to its impact. (X is far from alone here: look at Facebook, for example.)

4: Cognitive Dissonance

Users may recognise the ethical issues surrounding X but find ways to justify their continued use. This could range from believing they can avoid the negative aspects to thinking their individual usage doesn’t contribute significantly to the larger problem especially if they don’t engage much or at all with the content they see in their timelines.

5: Business and Professional Obligations

For some, the decision to continue using X is not entirely a personal choice but a professional necessity. Journalists, marketers, and influencers often rely on the platform for their livelihood, making it challenging to disengage without potential career repercussions. Organisations, governments, non-profits and many others have built a valuable presence on Twitter over many years that cannot easily be replicated somewhere else.

Undoubtedly there are other reasons but these five strike me as the most apparent. And I admit that numbers 4 and 5 resonated pretty strongly for me.

While it’s easy to assume that some people don’t care about the ethical implications of using X, the reality is far more complex. A combination of social, psychological, and practical factors as I’ve outlined here contribute to its continued usage.

Still, I think we’re at the hard-choice moment where each of us defines what matters to us in our use of social networks. Ethics and morality must be part of our defining moments so that we make informed decisions about our online engagement.

If you’re in a quandary about what to do, a first step could be retrieving your entire Twitter/X archive that writer and filmmaker Emma-Jane describes in a Threads post. She was a Twitter user for 12 years.

Emma Jane on Threads

It might be a hard step but it’s necessary sooner or later. I did this last week.

Related reading:

(Photo at top by Jessica Irani on Unsplash)

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.