From sex workers to bakers, Twitter business users fear losses

A man talks on the phone as he surfs the internet on his laptop at a local coffee shop in downtown Shanghai November 28, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A man talks on the phone as he surfs the internet on his laptop at a local coffee shop in downtown Shanghai November 28, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

What’s the context?

Self-employed people who rely on Twitter worry that Elon Musk's changes on the platform could hit sales and cause disruption

  • Data safety, hate speech among leading concerns
  • Some entrepreneurs are prioritising other platforms
  • Musk says Twitter usage at an all-time high

JOHANNESBURG/LONDON - Abi Oyewole built a thriving online business selling badges, stickers and jewellery by promoting her creations on Twitter from her home in Canada during the pandemic.

Now, she fears she could lose many of her 25,000 followers if users abandon the platform because of the numerous changes introduced by Elon Musk since he took charge of the social media company.

Following a $44 billion buyout by Musk in October, half the platform's staff were fired - including specialists in the ethics teams and engineers, paid account verification came and went, and pay-to-view video content was proposed.

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Self-employed people and small businesses that use Twitter as a marketing platform - from online sex workers in Britain to home bakers in South Africa - are anxious that upheaval at the platform could disrupt their incomes.

"Business owners don't know what to expect," said Oyewole, 32, who started the business while waiting for her disability benefits at home in Calgary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Every day there's always something going on, and it looks like the site is falling apart," she told Context in a video call.

The platform, which has 238 million active daily users, is a key advertising medium for enterprises of all sizes, with some 82% of global businesses surveyed by the Content Marketing Institute in 2021 found to be using Twitter.

As yet, there are no consistent estimates or data showing whether user numbers have dropped since Musk took charge. He said earlier this week that usage "just hit another all time high".

If Twitter's algorithms pick up an advertisement for a small business, it can boost its visibility without the added expense of a website or marketing team, said Charles Isidi, a startup advisor for dozens of African businesses.

"(But) if a business is going to spend (money) on advertising, Twitter needs to make a strong business case that they will make more than that back, while feeling safe on the platform," Isidi said.

A Twitter spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

'Arbitrary rules'

For British online sex worker Countess Diamond, Twitter has been vital because it is one of the major social networks that does not ban adult content, though she has faced restrictions.

More than 34,000 people visited Diamond's website over the past month, and the vast majority came from Twitter or through her Linktree - a website directory platform - that she uses on her Twitter account, she said.

The content that 34-year-old Diamond and her two staff members produce is often shadow-banned on the platform - meaning her Twitter handle does not appear in searches, she said.

An online sex worker uses a mobile phone as she prepares herself to start a meeting with a customer online, in Concepcion, Chile April 7, 2020.REUTERS/Juan Gonzalez

An online sex worker uses a mobile phone as she prepares herself to start a meeting with a customer online, in Concepcion, Chile April 7, 2020.REUTERS/Juan Gonzalez

An online sex worker uses a mobile phone as she prepares herself to start a meeting with a customer online, in Concepcion, Chile April 7, 2020.REUTERS/Juan Gonzalez

While Musk has said that under his leadership some, if not all, accounts that have been restricted will have the curbs lifted, it is not clear when that will happen.

Musk has also promised that Twitter will be better for content creators, proposing paywalled, long-form video that will give a greater cut of revenue to creators than YouTube, on top of the platform's existing tipping feature or Super Follows.

But Diamond is unconvinced.

"It would be incredible to not have to leave the platform, but there are such arbitrary rules when it comes to the terms of service," she said.

Even if the rules were clearer, key members of Twitter's security and engineering team leaving the company has cast doubts on how secure it will be, and she does not want to risk putting her employees at risk if data is leaked, she said.

"I don't think it's going to be a positive thing for sex workers and people whose content is already marginalised in an online sphere," said Diamond.

‘Entering the wilderness’

Rights groups are also concerned about a potential surge in hate speech, with the loss of specialist rights and ethics teams, and reports of heavy cuts in regional headquarters including in Asia and Africa.

Musk has said "Twitter's strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged", but business owners fear that the platform may no longer be a safe, or desirable, site for sales.

A view of the Twitter logo at its corporate headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 27, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A view of the Twitter logo at its corporate headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 27, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A view of the Twitter logo at its corporate headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S. October 27, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

"I just don't feel safe on Twitter these days," said Davy Tsopo, a former cleaner-turned-baker, whose online business took off in Johannesburg during the pandemic lockdown.

"Every time I log on I feel I am entering the wilderness," said Tsopo, a Zimbabwean, who said the hate speech toward foreign nationals in South Africa had made it unbearable to go onto the platform, even before Musk fired ethics specialists.

Tsopo said he would prefer to continue to sell mainly on other platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, adding that the possible reappearance of the $8 verification payment would be another big blow to micro businesses.

'Life or death'

Twitter has also been a lifeline for Rwanda's Edgard Ntamvutsa, whose small carpentry business pulled in hundreds of orders across the country since he tweeted a picture of a handmade laptop stand he designed for his wife during lockdown.

"It just went viral," said the 32-year-old, adding that while the future of the platform was uncertain, and sales had recently dropped, he was going to hedge his bets and stick around in case they pick up again.

Musk said this week he hoped to complete an organisational restructuring and eventually find a new leader to run the company.

But Oyewole, who is counting on her Twitter followers for the holiday season when most sales take place, fears the small businesses of marginalised entrepreneurs - such as LGBTQ+ or disabled users like herself - will suffer the most from Musk's overhaul of Twitter.

"This is life or death for a lot of people, this is how we eat and pay our bills," she said.

"It shouldn't be up to some random billionaire to change things without considering those affected in society."

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg in Johannesburg and Adam Smith in London; Editing by Rina Chandran and Helen Popper.)


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