Twitter is proving to be 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 mooted earlier in the year and then spent months trying to wriggle out of it. Not a day has passed by since, without controversy surrounding the social media platform. The saga adds a new chapter.

Musk, in one of his trademark tweet sermons, has now trained the guns at Apple. It all started with Musk pointing out that Apple has stopped advertising on Twitter. He tagged Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, in the tweet. Cook, or Apple, have not made a public comment. No surprise there.

Also Read: Elon Musk calls free speech ‘battle for future’ & an update on ‘suppression files’

A while later, Musk continued the conversation, mostly with himself, adding that Apple has indicated they would “withhold” Twitter from the App Store. This could have significant repercussions 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 its App Store, but won’t tell us why,” Musk tweeted. When Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman asked in a reply, “How did they communicate this?”, Musk didn’t clarify or confirm any communication from the tech giant. However, Musk seems to be hinting that Apple’s (possible) concerns stem from content moderation issues.

When The Verge’s Jake Kastrenakes asked if Apple is “threatening Twitter’s presence in the App Store or otherwise making moderation demands”, he simply replied with “Yes”. The content moderation issues bothering Apple, that Musk seems to be admitting himself, stem from the changes Twitter has undergone since the change of leadership.

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 advertisements on Twitter, in the past few weeks, includes General Motors, Pfizer, Volkswagen Group, Ford, Jeep, Nintendo and Eli Lilly.

Top advertising 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 spree – the content moderation teams were among those which saw significant reduction in employee strength. That includes Yoel Roth, who has resigned from his post as Global Head of Trust & Safety at Twitter.

Roth had, in fact, warned of the possibility. “Failure to adhere to Apple’s and Google’s guidelines would be catastrophic, risking Twitter’s expulsion from their app stores and making it more difficult for billions of potential users to get Twitter’s services,” Roth wrote in the New York Times.

With moderation teams significantly smaller after the recent layoffs, dealing with fake accounts is now a stiff challenge. That was proved with the fake Eli Lilly tweet, which remained online for hours even after the pharmaceutical giant flagged it to Twitter. The company’s stock prices nosedived in the subsequent day’s trading.

It is no surprise that racism and harassment are on the uptick.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate points out the specifics of the changes in Twitter’s content, from the first week since Musk took over. A word used as a racial slur was detected in 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 2022 average. These are just some examples.

What has also not helped is Musk’s whim to unlock the blocked accounts of certain users, including former US President Donald Trump. While Musk had claimed all this while that a content moderation council would be set up to take decisions on blocked accounts, he eventually went ahead with a Twitter poll to decide what he claimed was the will of the people.

It is not clear if and how many respondents to the poll were bots or whether it constituted targeted behaviour. After all, Elon Musk had repeatedly warned us about active bots on the platform.

Other side of the moderation coin

There has been increasing tension between Apple and Twitter. Apple executive 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 indeed eventually step in to restrict Twitter.

In an interview earlier this month with CBS News, Apple CEO Tim Cook stressed the importance of content moderation for apps that eventually end up listed on their platform.

“They say that they are going to continue to moderate. I’m counting on them to continue to do that,” he said.

Alejandra Caraballo, who is a Clinical Instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, warns us about Musk playing the pre-emptive game. “Don’t take Musk at his word that Apple is actually contemplating removing Twitter from the app store. It’s to his advantage to frame the media narrative and put Apple on the defensive preemptively,” says Caraballo.

Irrespective of the arguments about what is the correct way to do content moderation, application stores do have policies about restricting certain content on apps. Parler is an example. So are Discord and Tumblr. All examples of apps which had content moderation insisted upon them by the App Store.

Twitter depends on Apple and Google more than Musk realizes

It may not be a good idea to get into a battle with Apple (or Google, for that matter), at a time when the entire business plan to keep Twitter afloat is with the $7.99 Twitter Blue subscription service, which has already borne the brunt of a botched and not well thought through rollout once.

It doesn’t need illustration that the majority of Twitter users arrive on their feeds via Twitter for Android or Twitter for iPhone. Sometime this week, expect the re-relaunched Twitter Blue to be available again (it’ll be September 29, if Musk gets this one right). Important to look at some numbers here.

The commission he’ll have to pay to Apple and Google for any transactions made via the application stores for either platform, is annoying Musk. For Apple App Store, the cut is 30% for the first year and 15% from the second year. For Google’s Play Store, it is a flat 15% cut from the outset.

This is, and we must appreciate both sides of the argument, the fee that the tech giants charge for hosting the app on a platform that is accessible to millions of users and enables easy payments within the interface. There are inevitable arguments, for and against these charges.

Yet, these “cuts” or “fees” are not going to disappear overnight. It isn’t something Musk can wish away.

Twitter’s latest claims peg the daily active users at close to 250 million, with some fluctuations as expected. Musk would be hoping at least 5% of those pay for Twitter Blue. That would be about 12.5 million. We must multiply this expected subscriber base with $8 per month for an entire year.

It means Apple’s cut for the first year would be $360 million and $180 million from the second year onwards. For Google, that’ll be $180 million from the first year itself. These numbers may not be big for Apple or Google in the larger scheme for things. But Musk has to pinch every penny to somehow make the best out of a deal that he has admitted massively overpaying for.

Can Twitter and Musk really do without the application stores? It can become a web-only option, much like how Netflix and Amazon Prime have worked their subscriptions, bypassing the Apple and Google application store restrictions. But can that scenario work for Twitter?

It could, but that’ll mean a couple more steps for users to set up their subscriptions. Unlike Netflix, that could be the stumble when more users realise Twitter may not be a must-have for them.

If the expected 12.5 million Twitter users do pay up, that’s close to $1200 million a year pie (before Apple and Google’s share) which Musk cannot afford to jeopardize – either by making things inconvenient for anyone willing to subscribe, or by having the Twitter app restricted from application stores because of dodgy content moderation policies.

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