Twitter was the first social media platform where actress Téa Leoni engaged with fans. She joined in the fall of 2014, nearly a decade after Twitter launched, to promote her
series “Madam Secretary.”
“There was a lot of encouragement,” she said, referencing the push for TV stars and viewers to tweet while shows aired, before streaming overtook appointment television. Like other celebrities, Ms. Leoni said she saw an opportunity to elevate her acting projects and advance causes and issues she cared about—namely, her work on the board of the humanitarian organization UNICEF USA.
But late last month, the day after
bought Twitter Inc., she decided to leave after hearing that instances of hate speech had spiked on the platform. “That was it,” she said.
Actress Téa Leoni quit the social media platform in October.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Ms. Leoni is one of a number of high-profile users, including Gigi Hadid, Whoopi Goldberg and Stephen Fry, who have deactivated their accounts following Mr. Musk’s Twitter takeover. Others, like Stephen King, have been critical of the chief executive’s decisions, including his introduction of a subscription service for account verification and call for widespread layoffs. Though there is a precedent of public figures making splashy exits from Twitter as social or political statements, only to return months later, the current exodus is an unusually direct reproach of the company’s top executive.
“For a long time, but especially with its new leadership, it’s becoming more and more of a cesspool of hate & bigotry,” Ms. Hadid wrote on Instagram.
An analysis from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that aims to combat online hate speech and disinformation about subjects including climate change and vaccines, found that during Mr. Musk’s first week at the platform’s helm, the number of tweets and shares of posts mentioning the N-word was triple the average for the year, based on data from Brandwatch, a social media monitoring company.
Model Gigi Hadid said that Twitter was becoming more of ‘cesspool of hate & bigotry.’
Arnold Jerocki/Getty Images
“Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged,” Mr. Musk wrote on Twitter in response to criticism. “In fact, we have actually seen hateful speech at times this week decline below our prior norms.” He has said that Twitter usage has reached record highs since his takeover and that he is looking for ways to help people monetize content on the platform. More pressingly, Mr. Musk and his remaining employees are working to keep the site functioning as users express concerns about its longevity. Neither Twitter nor Mr. Musk could be reached for comment.
Though the current wave of high-profile departures is specific to Mr. Musk’s acquisition of the platform, it highlights the complicated relationship some celebrities now have with Twitter. In its early days, Oprah, Ashton Kutcher and
were among the A-listers who joined the site and attracted legions of fans seeking a direct line to their favorite stars. For people like them, Twitter could be a place to make money, too, through sponsored tweets on behalf of brands.
“When we started out, Twitter was a major part of a lot of our celebrity deals,” said Michael Heller, CEO and founder of Talent Resources, a digital marketing agency founded in 2007.
Then came photo- and video-sharing apps including Instagram and TikTok, which gave celebrities much broader reach and earning potential as they engaged with fans through aspirational photo posts and unfiltered live streams. Mr. Musk has expressed interest in adding “creator monetization for all forms of content.”
Elon Musk has said he wants to turn Twitter into an ‘everything app.’
Lori Krebs, the owner of LoriK Public Relations, whose clients include many reality television personalities, said while Twitter was once the dominant social media platform for stars—and a place where they could earn thousands of dollars for a single post—today it’s the site where her clients tend to be least active. Some no longer have a presence on it at all, she added.
If that trend continues, Mr. Musk could face a greater challenge in turning Twitter into an “everything app.” He has teased e-commerce and longer-form video features meant to encourage brands and personalities to spend more time and money on the platform.
Earlier this year, before he bought Twitter, Mr. Musk drew attention to the relative inactivity of certain users: “Most of these ‘top’ accounts tweet rarely and post very little content. Is Twitter dying?” he wrote. Among them were big-name celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, who tend to use the platform sparingly and in promotion of their art rather than as an everyday utility.
“For the last half a decade at least, most celebrities have been using Twitter as this pretty boring broadcast platform,” said Alice Marwick, an associate professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has researched celebrity usage of Twitter. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I have a new single dropping,’ or ‘Oh, I’m doing a contest,’ or ‘Oh, here’s a movie trailer for something I am in.’”
Before Elon Musk bought Twitter, he raised concerns about inactive celebrities accounts on the platform.
David Odisho/Getty Images
Twitter power users, Ms. Marwick said, tend to be journalists, academics and politicians. “Those are people who—for better or for worse—have a huge influence over the discourse and what people are talking about,” she added, noting that while Twitter’s audience is “minuscule” compared to Facebook, it has an outsize impact for that reason.
She said the recent celebrity defections, though notable, are largely performative and could have little influence on the platform. “What will have an effect is whether the advertisers leave,” she said. Already, Mr. Musk has complained about advertisers cutting down on spending in response to pressure from critics. “We’ve done our absolute best to appease them, and nothing is working,” he said at an investment conference in New York in early November.
Stephanie Smith, head of talent strategy at United Talent Agency’s IQ division, which handles research and analytics, said that celebrities try to have a presence on most platforms, even ones they don’t actively use, to establish authority over potential impersonators.
“They have them with the hope of at least trying to deter some of these fake accounts from being able to claim their public existence,” she added. But increasingly, she said, clients and partners are talking about how to navigate Twitter.
“We’re kind of playing a waiting game,” she said.
Write to Sara Ashley O’Brien at [email protected]
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