Elon Musk killing article headlines on X could offer Threads a second chance
By Clint Rainey
On Thursday morning, New Yorker contributor Merve Emre tweeted a link to a 2022 profile she’d written.
Unfortunately, hours prior, X (formerly Twitter) had removed all headlines from articles at the urging of owner Elon Musk. Emre linked to a piece on the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, who’d just won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature.
But unless you knew that Emre covers literature (for instance, by seeing that her profile was titled “Jon Fosse’s Search for Peace“), the picture might have looked like a bizarre glamour shot of Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser who looks a lot like Fosse and was trending because of news that he’d helped orchestrate the ouster of Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
The near-inability to tell a prize-winning author from the far-right host of War Room (rated the most misinformation-laden political podcast out there) became one of countless examples on Thursday of Musk’s newest tweak to the platform. For the billionaire provocateur, who purchased the social network a year and a half ago, it’s yet another change that would seem to undermine his vow to make Twitter “by far the most accurate source of information about the world.”
A handful of users were eager to exploit X’s headline change, so it backfired on Musk, who’s known for his thin skin when it comes to direct criticism:
Musk has owned the change. “This is coming from me directly,” he declared in August, when the plans were first revealed. “[It] will greatly improve the esthetics.”
Purportedly engineered to protect X users from falling prey to dishonest news stories with clickbait headlines, the move smacks of “removing a means of driving traffic to news sites,” cybersecurity experts have told Fast Company. And, indeed, Fast Company noticed, after scrolling the feed sans visible news headlines, that the change appeared not to affect paid advertisements. They were still loading with their headlines intact.
A fairer explanation than Musk’s own might be that he desires X to be a platform in which users upload their own content directly, instead of posting links that send people off the site. In recent weeks, Musk has begged Taylor Swift to post “some music or concert videos directly on the X platform,” and called it “rather disappointing” that Russell Brand, who got demonetized by YouTube last month after several women accused him of sexual assault, was “exclusively pushing Rumble when X has supported free speech just as much.”
On Tuesday, Musk also downplayed the importance of reading legacy news media by arguing that he personally “almost never” does that anymore. (“What’s [the] point of reading 1,000 words about something that was already posted on X several days ago?”)
Musk has in the meantime slowed traffic to rival platforms like Facebook and Substack, just as he has slowed the load times to reach large news sites like the New York Times and Reuters.
Which brings us to Threads, the would-be “Twitter killer” launched by Instagram parent Meta in July. Although the site had a promising start, it has since struggled to gain traction.
X’s latest move, drawing critics on both the left and the right, would seem to give other social networks—Threads, in particular—an opening. Even before the pushback against X started on Thursday, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri seemed to sense a glimmer of opportunity. He wrote on Threads earlier this week (as other users discussed specific features that X/Twitter does well) that threads has been weighing its approach to news content carefully.
“We’re not anti-news, news is already on Threads,” Mosseri wrote. “We’re simply trying to avoid over-promising and under-delivering to an incredibly powerful group, which is a mistake we’ve made as a company many times in the past.”
The context of the discussion was a deeply reported piece, just published by The Information, digging into Threads’ strategy to revive user interest. “Staffers are trying to figure out how to turn the app into a place where people can get information about big events as they are happening,” it noted. They have realized people are still going to X “for real-time updates about big news and sporting events.”
All that could change, however, if people visit X for real-time news updates but are greeted instead with a bunch of stock Getty images that link to God knows what. Commentators who have already counted Threads out may soon need to recalculate their odds.