By Jack Brewster, Macrina Wang, and Valerie Pavilonis | Published on Nov. 11, 2022
In the week following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, the most popular untrustworthy accounts enjoyed a 57.04% increase in engagement in the form of likes and retweets, according to a survey undertaken by NewsGuard using its proprietary trust ratings and online engagement data provided by NewsWhip.
The findings highlight how Musk’s public statements about potential future changes to Twitter policies appear to have encouraged greater activity by malign actors, boosting the popularity of misinformation on the platform. Even without any operational or policy changes having occurred in terms of how the platform is moderated, the simple and highly publicized fact of new ownership and Musk’s public speculation about changes to the platform coincided with a significant increase in the popularity of false narratives spread by sources that NewsGuard previously identified as untrustworthy, using basic apolitical criteria of journalistic practice.
In the week after the acquisition (Oct. 27, 2022-Nov. 3, 2022), tweets posted by the 25 most-followed Twitter accounts that are tracked by NewsWhip, a social media monitoring company, and linked to publishers that NewsGuard has assessed as repeatedly spreading false information garnered 3,115,664 likes and retweets, NewsGuard found. Two weeks prior to the acquisition, Oct. 13-Oct. 20, 2022, those same accounts received 1,983,953 likes and retweets. (Likes and retweets constitute overall “engagement.”) That accounts for a 57.04% cumulative increase post-Musk. (Note: These 25 accounts are in the top-50 most followed NewsGuard-rated untrustworthy accounts; NewsWhip does not reliably track the likes and retweets of the other 25, but there is no reason to believe their engagement would differ from the 25 accounts that are tracked.)
For example, the interactions of the Twitter account linked to Mercola.com — a website of healthcare hoax purveyor Joseph Mercola that has published numerous false claims about vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic — rose from 932 to 19,259, a 1966.42% increase in engagement and the largest increase measured by NewsGuard. At the same time, the account’s tweet volume rose from 6 to 23. Mercola.com receives a 27.5 trust score out of possible 100 from NewsGuard.
The next largest increase in Twitter engagement post- vs. pre-acquisition was DrNorthrup.com, a site founded by Dr. Christiane Northrup, a self-described wellness expert that has also repeatedly published false information about COVID-19. The site’s engagement increased 1017.46%, from 63 interactions to 704, while its number of tweets increased 54.16%, from 24 to 37. DrNorthrup.com receives a 25 trust score from NewsGuard. “If I don’t get censored for this, I’ll know that the tide has truly changed,” Northrup tweeted on Oct. 28, 2022, alongside a cartoon of Musk and a person crying.