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The Story Behind Elon Musk’s Tweet Restriction Fiasco


While the finer points of running a social media business can be debated, one basic truth is that they all run on attention. Tech leaders are incentivized to grow their user bases so there are more people looking at more ads for more time. It’s just good business.

As the owner of Twitter, Elon Musk presumably shared that goal. But he claimed he hadn’t bought Twitter to make money. This freed him up to focus on other passions: stopping rival tech companies from scraping Twit­ter’s data without permission—even if it meant losing eyeballs on ads.

Data-scraping was a known problem at Twitter. “Scraping was the open secret of Twitter data access. We knew about it. It was fine,” Yoel Roth wrote on the Twitter ­alternative Bluesky. AI firms in particular were no­torious for gobbling up huge swaths of text to train large language models. Now that those firms were worth a lot of money, the situation was far from fine, in Musk’s opinion.

In November 2022, OpenAI debuted ChatGPT, a chatbot that could generate convincingly human text. By January 2023, the app had over 100 million users, making it the fastest ­growing consumer app of all time. Three months later, OpenAI secured another round of funding that closed at an astounding valuation of $29 billion, more than Twitter was worth, by Musk’s estimation.

OpenAI was a sore subject for Musk, who’d been one of the original founders and a major donor before stepping down in 2018 over disagree­ments with the other founders. After ChatGPT launched, Musk made no secret of the fact that he disagreed with the guardrails that OpenAI put on the chatbot to stop it from relaying dangerous or insensitive infor­mation. “The danger of training AI to be woke—in other words, lie—is deadly,” Musk said on December 16, 2022. He was toying with starting a competitor.

Near the end of June 2023, Musk launched a two-part offensive to stop data scrapers, first directing Twitter employees to temporarily block “logged out view.” The change would mean that only people with Twitter accounts could view tweets.

“Logged out view” had a complicated history at Twitter. It was rumored to have played a part in the Arab Spring, allowing dissidents to view tweets without having to create a Twitter account and risk compromising their anonymity. But it was also an easy access point for people who wanted to scrape Twitter data.

Once Twitter made the change, Google was temporarily blocked from crawling Twitter and serving up relevant tweets in search results—a move that could negatively impact Twitter’s traffic. “We’re aware that our ability to crawl Twitter.com has been limited, affecting our ability to display tweets and pages from the site in search results,” Google spokesperson Lara Levin told The Verge. “Websites have control over whether crawlers can access their content.” As engineers discussed possible workarounds on Slack, one wrote: “Surely this was expected when that decision was made?”

Then engineers detected an “explosion of logged in requests,” according to internal Slack messages, indicating that data scrapers had simply logged in to Twitter to continue scraping. Musk ordered the change to be reversed.

On July 1, 2023, Musk launched part two of the offensive. Suddenly, if a user scrolled for just a few minutes, an error message popped up. “Sorry, you are rate limited,” the message read. “Please wait a few moments then try again.”





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