The Washington Post

Musk doesn’t own Twitter yet, but conservati­ves are racking up followers

The possible takeover is already shifting the political dynamics of the influentia­l network

- BY CAT ZAKRZEWSKI, NAOMI NIX, JEREMY B. MERRILL AND MADISON DONG Data on Twitter followers for current members of Congress comes from Propublica. All other Twitter follower data was obtained through the Internet Archive.

Hours after Twitter accepted Elon Musk’s bid to buy the company, Fox News host Tucker Carlson called the sale the biggest political developmen­t since Donald Trump won the presidency.

“You just became a little more powerful,” Carlson told his millions of viewers hours after the deal was announced. “It’s that simple and it’s that profound.”

Indeed, Carlson was about to get a little more powerful himself: Since April 25, the day Twitter accepted Musk’s offer, his Twitter followers have jumped by more than 230,000 — a nearly 5 percent increase.

There’s still plenty that could disrupt the deal; Musk himself tweeted Friday that the sale was “on hold” while he investigat­ed fake accounts on the site.

But, Carlson’s gain is one of several early signs that Musk’s takeover is already shifting the dynamics of one of the most influentia­l social networks in the country. A Washington Post analysis of hundreds of Twitter accounts found that right-leaning accounts, including Republican members of Congress, received a surge in followers since the deal was announced last month, even as their Democratic counterpar­ts’ followings flatlined.

Other influentia­l figures saw similar spikes: Donald Trump Jr. amassed nearly 600,000 followers, an 8 percent increase, raising his follower count to more than 8.1 million. Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R- Ohio) followers on Twitter increased by more than 300,000 in less than three weeks. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-tex.) gained nearly 250,000 followers during that same time frame.

In the same period, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.) lost more than 8,500 followers, while Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Calif.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D- Calif.) lost approximat­ely 11,000 and 6,000 followers respective­ly. That drop in clout among Democrats came as #Leavingtwi­tter briefly trended on the platform, following the news of Musk’s purchase.

Musk has no control yet over internal decisions at Twitter, and the deal isn’t expected to close for months. Yet the data is an indication of how Musk’s leadership as a “free speech absolutist” could shape the future of the social network — transformi­ng which users flock to the platform. The change is happening in the crucial months before the 2022 midterms, when a shift in Twitter use could shape the national political debate and media coverage of races.

“It definitely says something about the possible future of Twitter,” said Darren Linvill, an associate professor at the Clemson University Media Forensics Hub. “You’re going to see a spike in conservati­ve users.”

Several high-profile conservati­ve users baselessly attributed the sudden boost to the company treating conservati­ves’ accounts differentl­y the instant the Musk deal was announced. ( Twitter declined to comment on the claims but has previously said that it does not make content moderation decisions based on political ideology.)

“While I’m awesome and totally deserving of 87,000 new followers a day it seems that someone took the shackles off my account. Wonder if they’re burning the evidence before new mgmt comes in?” tweeted Donald Trump Jr. Similarly, Carlson’s show suggested that Musk had “restored” free speech to the network, reactivati­ng his previously suspended account.

In fact, Twitter temporaril­y suspended Carlson’s account in March after he insinuated Rachel Levine, the nation’s highestran­king openly transgende­r woman, was a man. Carlson’s account was not restored because of a policy change. Twitter spokeswoma­n Elizabeth Busby told The Post that Carlson’s full access was restored 12 hours after he deleted the tweet that broke the company’s rules.

Twitter spokesman Trenton Kennedy said in a statement that the company has been looking into the fluctuatio­ns. “While we continue to take action on accounts that violate our spam policy which can affect follower counts, these fluctuatio­ns appear to largely have been a result of an increase in new account creation and deactivati­on.” Early fluctuatio­ns in conservati­ves’ follower counts were first reported by NBC News.

It seems conservati­ves are taking Musk’s purchase of the company as an invitation to return to the website.

Musk’s deal was probably viewed as a signal that people who were previously suspended from the site could return, prompting people to follow Republican political leaders, said Bhaskar Chakravort­i, dean of global business at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Musk’s early rhetoric about his plans for the company resonate with conservati­ves’ long-held criticisms. He said on Tuesday that he plans to reverse Twitter’s permanent suspension of former president Donald Trump, a highprofil­e decision that emboldened conservati­ves’ accusation­s that tech companies prejudice such users. Musk said that Twitter needs to be “much more evenhanded,” adding the company has a “strong left bias.”

In recent weeks, Musk also may be driving followers through his own highly watched interactio­ns. He replied to rightwing commentato­r Ben Shapiro, after Shapiro wrote that The Washington Post and “every Leftwing blue check mark” were panicking over Musk’s comments about the platform. Shapiro, who has a history of incendiary comments about race and sexuality, has seen his following spike by more than 400,000 since the Musk purchase, bringing his total following to more than 4.3 million.

Musk responded three times since the sale to right-wing activist Mike Cernovich, who has promoted false conspiracy theories including the discredite­d “Pizzagate” hoax. Cernovich’s following has increased by nearly 74,000, an 8 percent increase bringing his follower count to more than 960,000.

Representa­tives for Carlson, Jordan, Cruz, Sanders, Waters, Feinstein, Shapiro and Cernovich did not immediatel­y respond to request for comment. A representa­tive for Trump Jr. declined to comment.

This friendly rhetoric could appeal to conservati­ves, encouragin­g them join the site. But if Twitter becomes too aligned with one political party, it could be bad for the company’s bottom line, said Linvill.

“If it becomes only a platform for conservati­ves to talk, or only a platform for liberals to talk, it will lose money without question,” Linvill said. “It needs to be a place where people feel safe to share some cat memes.”

Twitter historical­ly has a more liberal user base than Facebook, a significan­tly larger social network. A 2021 Pew Research Center study found that more than a third of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independen­ts report using Twitter, nearly double the percentage of Republican­s who say they use the social network. That’s a much wider gap than Facebook, which is used by 72 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republican­s. However, other social networks such as Instagram, Whatsapp and Linkedin also report similar disparitie­s as Twitter.

This leftward lean may have contribute­d to how Twitter users talked about the sale on the platform: An analysis by a team at Tufts University of more than 4 million tweets found that posts reflecting positive emotions, such as joy, and negative emotions such as anger spiked after Musk started publicly criticizin­g the company in late March. But once news of the takeover broke, the dominant reaction settled, reflecting sadness and anger.

“I think people felt [the takeover] was a bridge too far,” said Chakravort­i. “The sentiments turned negative and significan­tly negative.”

One reason users might hold polarizing views about Musk’s ownership of Twitter is because they have different ideas about how the company moderates content. A separate 2021 Pew Research Center study found that Republican­s on Twitter are far more likely to say Twitter has adopted overly aggressive content moderation policies. Nearly 60 percent of Republican­s said it’s a major problem that Twitter reduces the visibility of certain posts, compared with 17 percent of Democrats.

Evelyn Douek, a senior research fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said while there isn’t any evidence that Twitter eased restrictio­ns on conservati­ves’ accounts after the Musk deal was finalized, their comments highlight a larger transparen­cy problem.

“Many people on all sides of political spectrum have been concerned,” she said. “There’s this nub of truth to it that we don’t have any idea of what’s going on.”

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 ?? CHIP SOMODEVILL­A/GETTY IMAGES ?? Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s Twitter followers jumped by more than 230,000 — a nearly 5 percent increase — since April 25. Carlson’s show suggested that Musk had “restored” free speech to the network, reactivati­ng his previously suspended account.
CHIP SOMODEVILL­A/GETTY IMAGES Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s Twitter followers jumped by more than 230,000 — a nearly 5 percent increase — since April 25. Carlson’s show suggested that Musk had “restored” free speech to the network, reactivati­ng his previously suspended account.

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