On the Prevalence of Hate Speech on Twitter

Sheera Frenkel and Kate Conger, reporting today for The New York Times under the alarming headline “Hate Speech’s Rise on Twitter Is Unprecedented, Researchers Find”:

Before Elon Musk bought Twitter, slurs against Black Americans showed up on the social media service an average of 1,282 times a day. After the billionaire became Twitter’s owner, they jumped to 3,876 times a day.

Slurs against gay men appeared on Twitter 2,506 times a day on average before Mr. Musk took over. Afterward, their use rose to 3,964 times a day.

And antisemitic posts referring to Jews or Judaism soared more than 61 percent in the two weeks after Mr. Musk acquired the site.

These findings — from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, the Anti-Defamation League and other groups that study online platforms — provide the most comprehensive picture to date of how conversations on Twitter have changed since Mr. Musk completed his $44 billion deal for the company in late October. While the numbers are relatively small, researchers said the increases were atypically high.

Reactions on Twitter to this story all seemingly take it at face value that Twitter now has a problem with hate speech being tweeted. I suspect my take is going to be unpopular with many of you, but I’m not seeing it. Doubling the daily average of racial and gay slurs and antisemitic posts is obviously bad. That should go without saying. But in absolute terms these numbers show just how rare hate-speech tweets are. There are over 800 million new tweets posted every day.

I included in my blockquote above the Times’s line about the numbers being “relatively small”. But the narrative that’s being embraced by those opposed to Musk’s leadership of Twitter is that Twitter is now riddled with such hate speech. The truth is something to the effect of “The recent trendline of hate speech on Twitter is alarming.” The way it’s being talked about, though, is more like “Twitter is suddenly a hellscape of hate speech.” That’s just not true. Right now it’s more like having twice as many people as usual pissing in a large pool each day. It’s not what you want, but it’s still a few drops in the proverbial bucket.

Friday, 2 December 2022