On Monday morning, James Musk sent an urgent message to Twitter engineers.
“We are debugging an issue with engagement across the platform,” wrote Musk, a cousin of the Twitter CEO, tagging “@here” in Slack to ensure that anyone online would see it. “Any people who can make dashboards and write software please can you help solve this problem. This is high urgency. If you are willing to help out please thumbs up this post.”
When bleary-eyed engineers began to log on to their laptops, the nature of the emergency became clear: Elon Musk’s tweet about the Super Bowl got less engagement than President Joe Biden’s.
Biden’s tweet, in which he said he would be supporting his wife in rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles, generated nearly 29 million impressions. Musk, who also tweeted his support for the Eagles, generated a little more than 9.1 million impressions before deleting the tweet in apparent frustration.
After those losses — the Eagles to the Kansas City Chiefs and Musk to the President of the United States — the Twitter CEO took his private jet to the Bay Area on Sunday night to demand answers from his team.
Already a day later, the consequences of this meeting echoed around the world: Twitter users, opening the application, saw that Musk’s posts overflowed their feed. This was no accident, says Platformer: after Musk threatened to fire the rest of his engineers, they created a system designed to ensure that Musk, and only Musk, would benefit from the previously unheard-of promotion of his tweets to his entire user base.
In recent weeks, Musk has been obsessed with the number of responses to his posts. Last week he fired one of the company‘s two chief engineers after he told him that the number of views on his tweets was declining, in part because interest in Musk had declined overall.
Over the weekend, his deputies told the rest of the engineering team that if the problem was not resolved, they would also lose their jobs.
Musk personally addressed his team late Sunday night. About 80 people were involved in the project, which quickly became the company’s number one priority. Staff worked through the night, exploring various hypotheses about why Musk’s tweets weren’t reaching as many people as he thought they should, and testing possible solutions.
According to the engineers, one version is that Musk’s audience engagement may have decreased because he has been blocked and muted by many people in recent months. Even before this weekend’s events, Musk’s tenure as head of Twitter had resulted in a huge number of people filtering him out of their feeds.
But there were also legitimate technical reasons why the CEO’s tweets didn’t work. Twitter has historically promoted posts from users whose posts perform better to both followers and non-followers in the For You tab. Musk’s tweets should have followed this pattern, but according to some internal estimates, they appeared about twice as often as some engineers thought they should.
By Monday afternoon, the “problem” had been resolved. Twitter has rolled out code to automatically “greenlight” all of Musk’s tweets, meaning his tweets will bypass filters designed to show people the best content. Now, the algorithm has artificially boosted the rank of Musk’s tweets by a factor of a thousand, a constant that has given his tweets a higher rank than anyone else’s in the feed.
Inside the company, it’s called the “power user multiplier,” although it turns out that only applies to Elon Musk. The code also allows Musk’s account to bypass Twitter heuristics that would otherwise prevent a single account from populating the main ratings feed, now known as “For You.”
That explains why people who opened the app on Monday found Musk dominating the feed: a dozen or more of Musk’s tweets and replies were seen by everyone who followed him and millions who didn’t. According to internal estimates, more than 90% of Musk’s followers now see his tweets.
Musk admitted to bombarding users’ feeds by posting his own version of a not-so-appropriate meme:
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 14, 2023
As absurd as Musk’s antics are, they highlight a tension familiar to almost anyone who has ever used a social network: why are some posts more popular than others?
Engineers of services such as TikTok and Instagram can offer partial answers to these questions. But ranking algorithms make predictions based on hundreds and thousands of signals and deliver posts to millions of users, making it nearly impossible to determine who is seeing what.
As the most popular Twitter user with nearly 129 million followers, Musk’s posts often receive 10 million or more impressions, according to Twitter’s tally. There are good reasons to doubt the accuracy of these estimates, but more reliable data are not available.
But the number of views of Musk’s posts still fluctuates widely. A tweet about bottle feeding received 118.4 million views; his next tweet, a humorous aphorism, earlier posted on Reddit and satirically attributed to Abraham Lincoln, received 49.9 million views. Some of his tweets, written earlier this month, have received less than 8 million views.
“An empty browser history says more than a full one” – Abraham Lincoln
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 14, 2023
The most obvious reason for this discrepancy is that people think some tweets are better than others. But it doesn’t have to be like that. You can also change the ranking algorithms to show your posts no matter what.
This is exactly the kind of system that Twitter engineers who are afraid of losing their jobs are creating right now.
“He bought the company, made a point of showcasing what he believed was broken and manipulated under previous management, then turns around and manipulates the platform to force engagement on all users to hear only his voice,” said a current employee. “I think we’re past the point of believing that he actually wants what’s best for everyone here.”