Elon Musk forced algorithm change to boost his tweets after Joe Biden got more views: report

Frustrated about his engagement on Twitter, Musk forced his team of engineers to overflow the feed with his tweets

Published February 15, 2023 2:43PM (EST)

Elon Musk Twitter account private page seen on Mobile with Elon Musk in the background on screen. (Photo Illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Elon Musk Twitter account private page seen on Mobile with Elon Musk in the background on screen. (Photo Illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

After Elon Musk's tweet about the Super Bowl received less engagement than President Joe Biden's, the billionaire Twitter CEO reportedly introduced major changes to the algorithm to prioritize his own tweets. 

Engineers at Twitter were awoken at 2:36 am on Monday when James Musk, the cousin of Elon Musk, sent an urgent message to everyone on the team who was online, according to sources who spoke to Platformer

"We are debugging an issue with engagement across the platform," James Musk wrote. "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."

The "emergency" in question was that Elon Musk's tweet about the Super Bowl received less engagement than Biden's, who generated nearly 29 million impressions after expressing his support for the Philadelphia Eagles. Musk, who also said he would be rooting for the Eagles, generated a little more than 9.1 million impressions before deleting his tweet in a fit of frustration.

Musk then flew his private jet back to San Francisco to demand answers from Twitter's team of engineers. In just 24 hours, Twitter users began to notice that Musk's posts were inundating their ranked timeline. 

This was not a coincidence, according to Platformer, which reported that Musk threatened to fire his remaining engineers if they did not build a system guaranteeing that only Musk would benefit from a new promotion system that would show his tweets to the entire user base. 

Musk's deputies alerted the rest of the engineering team this weekend that if his engagement wasn't "fixed" they would all lose their jobs. Late Sunday night, the CEO also addressed a team of 80 people in person, making the engagement issue the number one priority at the company. Employees had to work through the night to determine why Musk's tweets weren't reaching as many people as he would like and test possible solutions.

Engineers explained that one possibility for the decline in views might be because many users on the site have blocked and muted him in recent months. They also found technical reasons for the drop in engagement, including a system that has historically promoted tweets from accounts whose posts do better to all users in the For You tab. 

According to some engineers and internal estimates, Musk's tweets should have been promoted through this system, but they showed up only less than about half the time that the engineers thought they should.

On Monday afternoon, Musk's "problem" had been "fixed," because Twitter launched a code to automatically "greenlight" all of Musk's tweets past a filter that is designed to show people the best possible content. The algorithm now artificially boosts the CEO's tweets by a factor of 1,000, ensuring that his thoughts will rank higher than anyone else's on the For You tab.

This system is called a "power user multiplier," but engineers told Platformer that it is exclusively applied to Musk's tweets. The code also allows Musk's account to bypass an algorithm that would otherwise stop any single account from overpowering the ranked feed.

People who opened the app on Monday found that Musk was drowning out their feed, with a dozen or more Musk tweets and replies visible to those who follow him, and millions who do not. According to an internal estimate obtained by Platformer, over 90 percent of Musk's followers now see his tweets on their For You page. 

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Musk on Tuesday acknowledged the flood of his tweets on the timeline by posting a meme in which one woman labeled "Elon's tweets" forcibly bottle-feeds another woman labeled "Twitter" while pulling her hair back. 

Popular technology YouTuber Zack Nelson took to Twitter on Wednesday to highlight the hypocrisy of Musk's actions since acquiring the social media platform for $44 billion. "Everyone's free speech is of equal importance... except for mine which is more importanter," Nelson joked.

Tara Dublin, a radio personality, also tweeted a sarcastic response to the new flood of Musk tweets on everyone's timelines. "If only everybody had told everybody else that letting Elon Musk buy Twitter was a bad idea," she wrote, adding the hashtag "#BlockElon."

Comedy writer Aaron Gillies also reacted to the new algorithm change, writing "Remember, you may feel lonely, but you'll never be 'spend 44 billion to make it seem like people like me' lonely."

Following the mass criticism of Musk spamming the timeline, the CEO appeared to suggest that the changes would be reversed, at least in part. "Please stay tuned while we make adjustments to the uh .… 'algorithm,'" he tweeted

The artificial boosts to Musk's tweets remain, but engineers told Platformer that they have dropped from the factor of 1,000.

The new algorithm change is the latest consequence of Musk's recent outbursts regarding his dwindling engagement on the site. Just last week, Platformer revealed that Musk fired one of the company's principal engineers because the engineer explained that views on the CEO's tweets were falling in part because general interest in Musk is declining. 

While Twitter engineers aren't thrilled about the system they're building, they are scared of losing their jobs if they don't cooperate with Musk's antics. 

"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," a current employee told Platformer. "I think we're past the point of believing that he actually wants what's best for everyone here."

By Samaa Khullar

Samaa Khullar is a news fellow at Salon with a background in Middle Eastern history and politics.

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