Twitter’s reliance on Apple and Google is why Elon Musk is making the first move
Twitter is proving more than a handful for Elon Musk, just a month since the billionaire walked into the tech company’s headquarters, forced to complete a $44 billion deal he first floated earlier this year and then spent months trying to wriggle out of out of it. . Not a day has passed since, without controversy surrounding the social media platform. The saga adds a new chapter.
Musk has now trained his guns on Apple in one of his trademark tweet sermons. It all started with Musk pointing out that Apple has stopped advertising on Twitter. He tagged Apple CEO Tim Cook in the tweet. Cook, or Apple, has not made a public comment. No surprise there.
Also read: Elon Musk calls free speech ‘fight for the future’ and an update on ‘suppression files’
Moments later, Musk continued the conversation, mostly to himself, adding that Apple has indicated it would “withhold” Twitter from the App Store. This could have significant consequences for Twitter, which sees its future as a subscription service.
Apple, advertisers and Musk’s idea of free speech
“Apple has also threatened to withhold Twitter from the App Store, but won’t tell us why,” Musk tweeted. When Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman asked in a response, “How did they communicate this?”, Musk did not clarify or confirm any communication from the tech giant. However, Musk seems to suggest that Apple’s (possible) concerns stem from content moderation issues.
When The Verge’s Jake Kastrenakes asked if Apple “threatens Twitter’s presence in the App Store or otherwise imposes moderation requirements,” he simply answered “Yes.” The content moderation problems plaguing Apple, which Musk appears to admit himself, stem from the changes Twitter has undergone since the leadership change.
If the iPhone maker has indeed pulled all advertising from Twitter, it wouldn’t be the first popular brand to do so. The list of brands that have stopped advertising on Twitter in recent weeks includes General Motors, Pfizer, Volkswagen Group, Ford, Jeep, Nintendo and Eli Lilly.
Top ad agencies and media buyers globally have warned clients to pause advertising on Twitter, at least for now.
It wasn’t a good look for Twitter during the downsizing — the content moderation teams were among those who saw significant reductions in staff strength. That includes Yoel Roth, who has stepped down as Global Head of Trust & Safety at Twitter.
Indeed, Roth had warned of the possibility. “Failure to follow Apple’s and Google’s guidelines would be disastrous, risking Twitter’s expulsion from their app stores and making it harder for billions of potential users to get Twitter’s services,” Roth wrote in the New York Times.
With the moderation team considerably smaller after the recent layoffs, dealing with fake accounts is now a tough challenge. That was proven with the fake Eli Lilly tweet, which remained online for hours even after the pharmaceutical giant flagged it to Twitter. The company’s share prices plunged in the following day’s trading.
It’s no surprise that racism and harassment are on the rise.
The Center to Combat Digital Hate details the changes to Twitter’s content, from the first week since Musk took over. A word used as a racial slur was spotted 26,228 times in tweets and retweets in just one week, which is three times the average from the previous year.
Another word, to harass transgender people, was clocked 33,926 times in tweets and retweets, and that was 53% higher than the average in 2022. These are just a few examples.
What hasn’t helped either is Musk’s whim to unlock the blocked accounts of some users, including former US President Donald Trump. While Musk had claimed all of this while setting up a content moderation board to make decisions about blocked accounts, he ultimately went ahead with a Twitter survey to determine what he claimed was the will of the people.
It is not clear whether and how many respondents to the poll were robots or whether it constituted targeted behaviour. After all, Elon Musk had repeatedly warned us about active bots on the platform.
The other side of the moderation coin
There has been growing tension between Apple and Twitter. Apple CEO Phil Schiller deactivated his Twitter account after former Donald Trump was reinstated on the platform. Musk has hinted at a Twitter (or Tesla) smartphone if Apple and Google eventually move to restrict Twitter.
In an interview earlier this month with CBS News, Apple CEO Tim Cook emphasized the importance of content moderation for apps that eventually end up on their platform.
“They say they’re going to continue to moderate. I expect them to continue to do that,” he said.
Alejandra Caraballo, who is a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, warns us that Musk is playing the preemptive game. “Don’t take Musk at his word that Apple is actually considering removing Twitter from the app store. It is to his advantage to frame the media narrative and put Apple on the defensive beforehand, says Caraballo.
Regardless of the arguments about what is the right way to do content moderation, app stores have policies to restrict certain content on apps. Parler is an example. So are Discord and Tumblr. All examples of apps that had content moderation insisted on by the App Store.
Twitter depends on Apple and Google more than Musk realizes
It might not be a good idea to get into a fight with Apple (or Google, for that matter), at a time when the entire business plan to keep Twitter afloat is with the $7.99 subscription service Twitter Blue, which has already carried the brunt. of an erroneous and ill-conceived rollout once.
It goes without saying that the majority of Twitter users access their feeds via Twitter for Android or Twitter for iPhone. Sometime this week, expect the relaunched Twitter Blue to be available again (that’ll be September 29, if Musk gets this one right). Important to look at some numbers here.
The commission he has to pay to Apple and Google for all transactions made through the app stores for both platforms is vexing Musk. For the Apple App Store, the cut is 30% for the first year and 15% from the second year. For Google’s Play Store, there is a flat cut of 15% from the outset.
This is, and we have to appreciate both sides of the argument, the fee that the tech giants charge to host the app on a platform that is accessible to millions of users and that enables easy payments in the interface. There are inevitable arguments for and against these charges.
Still, these “cuts” or “taxes” aren’t going to disappear overnight. It’s not something Musk can wish away.
Twitter’s latest claims put its daily active users at close to 250 million, with some fluctuations as expected. Musk hopes that at least 5% of them will pay for Twitter Blue. It will be around 12.5 million. We need to multiply this expected subscriber base by $8 per month for a full year.
That means Apple’s cut for the first year will be $360 million and $180 million from the second year onward. For Google, it will be 180 million dollars from the first year itself. These numbers may not be huge for Apple or Google in the grand scheme of things. But Musk has to pinch every penny to somehow get the most out of a deal that he has admitted he overpaid.
Can Twitter and Musk really do without the app stores? It could become an online alternative, much like how Netflix and Amazon Prime have worked with their subscriptions, bypassing the restrictions of the Apple and Google Application Stores. But could that scenario work for Twitter?
It can, but it will mean a few more steps for users to set up their subscriptions. Unlike Netflix, it may have stumbled as more users realize that Twitter may not be a must for them.
If the expected 12.5 million Twitter users pay, that’s close to $1,200 million per year (before Apple and Google’s share) that Musk can’t afford to jeopardize — either by making things inconvenient for anyone willing to subscribe, or by having the Twitter app restricted from app stores due to insecure content moderation policies.