Twitter goes to the dogs

Meme by Tom Scott

The social media platform has become a fully weaponised promotional tool for far-right content, toxic conspiracy theories and cryptocurrency scams. And Putin’s regime is loving it, writes Tom Scott

Like millions of other Twitter users, I logged on to my account a couple of days ago to find that the familiar blue bird logo on my home page had been replaced by a dog’s head. The dog in question being the Shiba Inu meme that serves as the mascot of the cryptocurrency Dogecoin.

Dogecoin was co-created (originally as a kind of joke) by Elon Musk’s tech-bro buddy Billy Markus (who uses the pseudonym Shibetoshi Nakamoto on Twitter) and both Musk and Tesla now own very substantial amounts of the volatile cryptocurrency (Tesla’s holdings were estimated at over $200 million in 2022). Musk’s antics have previously caused major swings in Dogecoin’s value, and this latest gesture had the immediate effect of boosting it by 20 per cent.

So what was Musk up to? Was this, as he tweeted to suggest, the fulfilment of a jocular promise made before he took over the platform? As the person to whom this promise was made – an anonymous alt-right cryptocurrency tipster with the Twitter handle @WSBChairman – observed, “memes move markets”. And this one certainly did, to the benefit of individuals like Musk.

Was Musk flipping a finger at the Dogecoin investor who has brought a racketeering suit against him on the grounds that “Musk used his pedestal as world’s richest man to operate and manipulate the Dogecoin pyramid scheme for profit, exposure and amusement”? If so, it seems an unwise way of doing so, given the case against him, as he must have known what the effect would be on the cryptocurrency’s value.

Or was the whole exercise more a way of distracting from a rising tide of complaints from Twitter users? Since Musk sacked hundreds of key coding and customer support staff, the platform has seen technical problems proliferate, hitting its most basic functions and leaving millions of people unable to tweet or see other people’s tweets, sometimes for hours at a stretch. Many users have also found that they’ve had followers removed or themselves been removed as followers from other accounts (I was surprised recently to find that I was no longer a follower of West Country Voices). 

If the Dogecoin dog was a joke, it was warmly appreciated by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which took a break from lying about Putin’s war crimes to post some more Shiba Inu memes as avatar ideas for Musk, with the message: “From the very heart, bru.”

Putin’s regime had a particular reason to be laughing along with Musk. In October last year, apparently after conferring directly with Putin, the tech billionaire proposed (on Twitter) a ‘peace plan’ that would have given Putin much of what he wants from his invasion of Ukraine: recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, and an acceptance by Ukraine of permanent neutrality.

The Kremlin must also have been gratified by another development. A few days ago, Musk partially fulfilled a long-standing promise to publish Twitter’s algorithm – the code that determines what Twitter users see on their timelines and the likelihood of their tweets being seen by others. Actually, as many quickly pointed out, what was published was missing certain key data, to the extent that one former Twitter executive described it as “smoke and mirrors” and “completely dishonest”.

But it did contain some interesting revelations, one of which was that Twitter now downranks tweets about the Ukraine war, as if these were disinformation. This confirmed what many users have reported – that they now see far less about Putin’s brutal war than previously. Truth dies in darkness.

The code that was published didn’t shed much light on why users like me now find so much far-right content showing up on their timelines (my ‘For You’ feed has started showing me tweets from the execrable Dan Wootton of GB News, despite me not having ever engaged with or followed him). Nor did it fully explain why anti-vax conspiracy theorists and climate science deniers have been gaining such traction since Musk took over.

In 2019, I was commissioned to write a report for the EU Parliament on Facebook and disinformation. I’d been under under no illusions about the benevolence of Mark Zuckerberg, but was nevertheless shocked by what I found about the company’s long history of enabling abuse of personal data, extremist content and deceptive political advertising, and about the ways in which it had lied to conceal this.

The thread that ran through all of these abuses was not hard to follow: Facebook at every stage had been motivated purely by its rapacious appetite for profit. Zuckerberg mouths platitudes about bringing the world together, but his only real ideology is greed.

With Elon Musk, it’s different. Twitter has never been a big money-maker – in fact it’s only once seen a brief period of profitability, in 2018. And despite the peremptory sacking of hundreds of its staff, it now looks set to make ever-bigger losses. Since Musk bought it for $44 billion in September, the company has lost well over half its market value, and as advertisers continue to withdraw their custom the downward slide looks set to continue.

Musk may see opportunities to use the platform to further his other financial interests (by boosting Dogecoin, for instance) and has made cack-handed attempts to squeeze more revenue out of Twitter itself by charging for ‘blue tick’ accounts and selling these to a wide variety of charlatans, crypto scam merchants and conspiracy theorists. But it’s hard to believe that his takeover of the company was ever mainly about profit.

For Musk, having personal control of one of the world’s largest social media platforms is much more about personal aggrandisement and power. It’s easy to ridicule his aspiration to become Lord of the Memelords, but be in no doubt: this power is real. Musk is using it to tilt the platform so that it directs far-right ‘libertarian’ ideology and damaging disinformation to its users, and over time this is likely to have an effect on how millions of people understand and act in the world.

And this is why Lavrov and Putin are laughing along with the Dogecoin Shiba Inu.

For more articles by our Cornwall editor, Tom Scott, click here.