The hate speech problem on X: a test of conscience for users and brands

I’ve often wondered what event would happen, or what tipping point would be reached, for people to abandon ship on X formerly known as Twitter.

Since being acquired by Elon Musk in October 2022, the social network’s decline that has been going on for a number of years has accelerated in terms of, well, everything: number of users, usage of the platform, advertising revenue, trustworthiness… About all that has increased is the volume of toxic content and the increasing numbers of people using the platform who have previously been banned for hate speech and more.

Yet while trickles of influential voices have quit the platform, we haven’t seen a raging torrent of exits. As Shel and I often muse in discussion on our For Immediate Release podcast, we won’t see that unless or until the advertisers quit.

Are we now witnessing the dominoes starting to fall?

Over the past few days it’s been widely reported across the social and mainstream media landscape, led by the Financial Times, that IBM has withdrawn its worldwide advertising from X. IBM told the FT that it pulled its advertising following a report by Media Matters for America, a liberal non-profit research centre, that showed the tech giant’s advertising was placed alongside pro-Nazi content on X.

“IBM has zero tolerance for hate speech and discrimination and we have immediately suspended all advertising on X while we investigate this entirely unacceptable situation,” the company said in a statement.

FT, 16 November 2023

Media Matters’ report also highlighted that ads from major brands like Apple, Oracle, and Comcast’s Xfinity were found next to hate speech content promoting Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

IBM’s action stands out on a background of growing concerns about reduced content moderation and increasing hate speech on X since Musk’s takeover last year.

IBM’s withdrawal from X highlights the increasing concern among major brands about being associated with platforms that fail to effectively moderate hate speech and discriminatory content.

Late on Friday came news that Apple has also pulled its advertising. citing Musk’s public support for antisemitic views. While IBM’s withdrawal is big news, Apple’s move could be seismic given the hundreds of millions of dollars it reportedly spends in advertising on X.

“This could be the start of an advertising exodus. Lions Gate Entertainment is also pulling all advertising from X, a spokesperson confirmed to Axios.”

Axios, 17 November 2023

The serious challenge for X now is not only financial but also about upholding ethical standards in content moderation, which is crucial for maintaining advertiser and user trust.

The trouble is, such a challenge does not appear to matter at all to Elon Musk.

In addition to the companies mentioned, some media reports also say others including Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, Sony Pictures, and Comcast/NBCUniversal have also pulled their advertising.

These are big dominoes.

Taking a stand is also an action in the political arena where the European Commission – the politically independent executive arm of the European Union – has stopped advertising on X because of “widespread concerns relating to the spread of disinformation,” according to an internal note obtained by POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook.’s report quotes European Commission Deputy Chief Spokesperson Dana Spinant:

“[The European Commission communications department] will consider using alternative platforms (e.g. LinkedIn, Instagram or Facebook) or digital advertising on websites, as appropriate. We are also exploring new platforms to diversify our social media presence.”

Dana Spinant, European Commission, in, 17 November 2023

Consider the consequences of staying on X

For organisations, the big question is: where do you go if you leave X? It’s a natural question as, in the 17 years since its founding in 2006, Twitter had developed into a global media and marketing platform without equal in its structure, accessibility and function as a means of mass communication.

Twitter was already way beyond being just a social network when Musk acquired it and then turned it into X. In the second half of 2023, Musk and his CEO, Linda Yaccarino, have said they have doubled down on their efforts to address hate speech and persuade advertisers to stay and spend, even as bad actors and others have also doubled down on turning Twitter-now-X into a place not fit for purpose in the mainstream.

Meanwhile, users – especially many influential ones – have gone and left behind a wasteland of trolls, disinformation, hate and awfulness. X’s DAU numbers look most uninspiring, especially to advertisers, I imagine.

In the case of IBM mentioned earlier, this is about antisemitism, more than simply hate speech. It is a disturbing issue where X seems to have a central role in its spread.

Think about this if you hesitate in your thinking about staying or leaving:

  • Presence of antisemitic content: The spread of antisemitism on X is a critical issue, affecting both individuals, organisations and the platform’s overall environment.
  • Community impact: Hate speech and antisemitism are creating a hostile environment and the quality of public discourse will deteriorate further, impacting all users.
  • Content and policy changes: The decline in effective content moderation following the departure of senior executives and most of the original Twitter moderation teams drastically affects the platform’s environment, making it less suitable for professional use.
  • Professional and ethical implications: For professionals and organisations, the ethical implications of using a platform that struggles with hate speech, including antisemitism, are significant and will affect reputation and, potentially, brand values.

Ultimately, continuing use of such a platform might be perceived as tacit approval or indifference to the issues surrounding hate speech in all its forms, which could impact the reputation of you and your organisation, and alignment with personal or organisational values.

All, of this may be moot if falling dominoes cause X to suspend its operations – perhaps the financiers behind Musk may push him out – or, worse case, collapse entirely.

You do have your escape plan in place, right?

(One other thing to note. X isn’t the only social network where hate speech and antisemitism have a strong foothold – TikTok is another.)

Time to call time on X

I joined Twitter in the early days, in December 2006. Actually doing the deed of leaving X was quite easy once I’d realised that the original Twitter no longer existed after Musk renamed Twitter to X in July.

So in mid October, I quit X. I’d been mulling this over for some months; the catalyst to do it was the dreadful and disgusting event on X experienced by journalist Dave Lee in early October.

In the month since then, I have spent time that I would have spent on Twitter spread in a handful of different places, not purely one place. That’s one behaviour change as a result of Musk.

I’m primarily in these places:

  • Threads (Meta’s surprisingly good and evolving social network startup last July with 100 million-plus users already).
  • Pebble (on Mastodon, the phoenix-like successor to the invitation-only original that shut down in October, continuing its focus on being a smaller, kinder, safer, more fun platform, very niche with currently less than 500 members).
  • LinkedIn (I surprise myself with how much I actually enjoy this business-focused place that I joined in 2004 and hardly used until a few years ago).
  • Bluesky (the very Twitter-like potential, perhaps probable, successor to Twitter that’s just passed 2 million members, still by invitation only, with an added dash of fediverse).
  • Facebook (a private account; the appeal mostly is a handful of private groups I’m in that aren’t anywhere else).

My point in mentioning these five places is to illustrate that I believe the days of a single, centralised place are over. Now, you can spread your time and attention across a handful of different places, all with different communities, values, and rules.

All this is from the user’s perspective. Most are not places for advertisers with algorithms and demographics. These are places for authentic engagement, conversation, and community. The European Commission has got the right approach with their thinking: “We are also exploring new platforms to diversify our social media presence.”

I hope that thinking also includes looking at new (old) ways to engage with people.

Welcome to the start of the time of post-X.

Related reading:

(Photo at top by Andre Hunter 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.