A handful of influential but unreliable accounts, some of which have been promoted by Elon Musk, are dominating the flow of news on X around the Israel-Hamas war and easily outpacing established mainstream news outlets, according to research published Friday by the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public.
Researchers analyzed viral posts about the conflict during a three-day period starting from the beginning of the attack against Israel on Oct. 7. They concluded that the most popular posts about the crisis revealed how news on the platform is “faster, more disorienting, and potentially more shaped by Musk himself.”
The new work adds data to a swell of recent anecdotal accounts from researchers, academics and journalists who have noted a change for the worse in the way news and information moves and is incentivized on Twitter over the last year, especially since the start of the Israel-Hamas crisis. A separate analysis published Thursday by NewsGuard, a nonpartisan company that tracks false narratives online, found verified accounts were responsible for nearly three-fourths of the most viral misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war on Twitter.
“That shift is real,” said Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at the University of Washington and lead author of the new report.
“At its core what we’re looking at here is a different vision of what news is,” Caulfield said. “It’s fast, it’s unvetted, and it’s very often unsourced. And there’s every indication that the shift is not accidental and that it’s part of a vision of what news is going to be on X.”
“The people who are engaged, they probably buy into this vision, but we have doubts that it serves the public well,” he added.
The researchers branded seven high-performing accounts on X as “new elites,” because they have exercised “disproportionate power and influence” over Israel and Hamas news. The “new elites” include: Visegrád 24, a news aggregator run by a right-wing Polish social media marketing agency; Mario Nawfal, a Twitter celebrity known for hosting live audio chats focused on cryptocurrency who was the focus of an NBC News investigation; @spectatorindex, an account self-described as “News, media and data from around the globe,” reportedly operated by an Australian-Muslim medical doctor; @CollinRugg, a co-founder of the conservative site Trending Politics; and @CensoredMen, a 10-month-old account that before pivoting to the Israel-Hamas war primarily posted in support of the misogynist internet influencer Andrew Tate.
Tweets about the Israel-Hamas war from these accounts outperformed popular news accounts belonging to CNN, The New York Times, the BBC and Reuters, despite having far fewer followers, according to the research (NBC News was not included). Across the research period, tweets about the Israel-Hamas war from well-followed traditional news sources garnered 112 million views over 298 tweets, while tweets from the seven newly influential accounts drew 1.6 billion views across 1,834 tweets.
The researchers said that changes made by Musk to X had pushed the platform in a new direction.
“This occurs in an environment that has been shorn of many of the ‘credibility signals’ that served to ground users in the past — checkmarks that indicated notability, fact-checks distributed through Twitter Trends, and Twitter/X-based labeling of deceptive content,” the researchers wrote. “Even fundamental affordances of the web — such as simple sourcing through links — have been devalued by the platform, and, perhaps as a result, by the new elites that now direct its users’ attention.”
An emailed request for comment sent to X received an automated response: “Busy now, please check back later.”
Musk has been vocal in both his contempt for the mainstream press and his appreciation of nontraditional news sources. Musk has also called for more content creators to act as “citizen journalists” and made changes to X that affected traditional news sources, including removing verification badges from journalists and news outlets and throttling the reach of tweets that include links to news websites.
The researchers found that the “new elites” differed in political persuasion but shared several characteristics. They posted far more than traditional news outlets, used terms like “BREAKING” and emojis like sirens that suggested urgency, and often excluded sourcing for their claims. The most popular posts were often emotionally charged, including footage of the attacks and airstrikes as well as graphic photos and videos of the injured and dead.
Researchers wrote that the volume of the tweets combined with a dearth of sourcing or context created “the sense of a constant stream of decontextualized anger and violence.”
Another commonality between these new elite accounts is their dramatic increase in followers over the last two years, which may be explained by Musk’s interactions with them. Through following many of these accounts, replying to them, and directly recommending them, researchers wrote, “Musk may be playing a significant role in the increasing prominence of these news-focused sources.”
On several occasions, Musk has interacted or specifically promoted the accounts identified by researchers. In a tweet seen more than 11 million times before he later deleted it, Musk praised two of the anonymous accounts noted by researchers. Both accounts had reputations for false tweets before the Israel-Hamas war.
All of the “new elite” accounts identified by researchers have blue verified badges, a designation that until recently signified an account was notable and authentic, but which now means they pay $8 per month to subscribe to X’s premium service.