This story is based on interviews with people familiar with the events involved and supported by documents obtained by Platform game.
At 2:36 a.m. Monday morning, James Musk sent an urgent message to Twitter engineers.
“We’re debugging an engagement issue across the platform,” Musk, a cousin of Twitter’s CEO, wrote, tagging “@here” in Slack to make sure everyone online would see it. “All the people who can create dashboards and write software, please help solve this problem. This is a high urgency. If you are willing to help, please like this post.”
As engineers began logging into their laptops with blurry eyes, the nature of the emergency became clear: Elon Musk’s tweet about the Super Bowl received less attention than President Joe Biden’s.
Biden’s tweet, in which he said he would support his wife in supporting the Philadelphia Eagles, generated nearly 29 million impressions. Musk, who also tweeted his support for the Eagles, generated just over 9.1 million impressions before deleting the tweet in obvious frustration.
In the wake of those losses — the Eagles to the Kansas City Chiefs and Musk to the President of the United States — the CEO of Twitter flew back to the Bay Area on his private jet on Sunday night to demand answers from his team.
Engineers have built a system designed to ensure that Elon Musk benefits from exclusive promotion of his tweets
Within a day, the repercussions of that encounter would reverberate around the world, as Twitter users opened the app to find Musk’s posts overwhelming their ranked timeline. This was no coincidence Platform game can confirm: After Musk threatened to fire his remaining engineers, they built a system designed to ensure that Musk — and Musk alone — benefited from previously unheard-of promotion of his tweets to the entire user base.
In recent weeks, Musk has been obsessed with the amount of engagement his posts receive. Last week, Platform game broke the news that he fired one of the company’s two remaining chief engineers after the engineer told him that the views on his tweets are declining in part because interest in Musk in general has declined.
His deputies told the rest of the tech team over the weekend that if the engagement issue was not “resolved,” they would all lose their jobs as well.
Late Sunday night, Musk addressed his team in person. About 80 people were brought in to work on the project, which had quickly become the company’s number one priority. Employees worked through the night exploring various hypotheses about why Musk’s tweets weren’t reaching as many people as he thought they should, and testing possible solutions.
One possibility, engineers said, was that Musk’s range may have been reduced because he had been blocked and muted by so many people in recent months. Even before this weekend’s events, Musk’s long stint as Twitter’s protagonist, both leading up to and following his $44 billion takeover of the company, had resulted in huge numbers of people filtering him out of their feeds.
But there were also legitimate technical reasons why the CEO’s tweets didn’t work. Twitter’s system has historically promoted tweets from users whose posts perform better for both followers and non-followers on the For You tab; Musk’s tweets should have fit that model, but only came up about half the time less than some engineers thought they should.
Monday afternoon ‘the problem’ was ‘solved’. Twitter deployed code to automatically “green light” all of Musk’s tweets, meaning his posts bypass Twitter filters designed to show people the best content possible. The algorithm now artificially boosted Musk’s tweets by a factor of 1,000 — a constant score that made his tweets rank higher than anyone else’s in the feed.
Internally this is called a “power user multiplier”, although it only applies to Elon Musk, or so we’re told. The code also allows Musk’s account to bypass Twitter heuristics that would otherwise prevent a single account from flooding the main ranked feed, now known as “For You.”
That explains why people who opened the app on Monday found Musk dominating the feed, with a dozen or more Musk tweets and replies visible to everyone who followed him and millions of others who didn’t. According to an internal estimate, more than 90 percent of Musk’s followers now see his tweets.
Musk acknowledged his bombing on the Tuesday afternoon timeline, posting a version of the popular “forced to drink milkreverie in which a woman labeled “Elon’s tweets” forcefully bottle-feeds another woman labeled “Twitter” while pulling her hair back.
Some of his tweets were sent on Monday while he was talking to Twitter engineers to test whether the solutions they designed worked as well as he thought they should.
“Please stay tuned as we make adjustments to the uh… ‘algorithm'”
After Musk’s takeover of the timeline caused a stir Monday, he seemed to suggest that the changes would be reversed, at least in part. “Please stay tuned as we make adjustments to the uh…”algorithm,” he tweeted.
The artificial boosts applied to his account will remain in effect, although the factor is now below 1,000, we are told. Musk’s handful of tweets reported about 43 million impressions on Tuesday, which is on the high side of his recent average.
As absurd as Musk’s antics are, they do highlight a tension familiar to almost anyone who’s ever used a social network: Why are some posts more popular than others? Why do I see this thing and not that?
Engineers for services like TikTok and Instagram can provide partial, high-quality answers to these questions. But ranking algorithms make predictions based on hundreds or thousands of signals and deliver messages to millions of users, making it almost impossible for anyone to say with any degree of accuracy who is seeing what.
For better or for worse, that answer wasn’t good enough for Musk. As Twitter’s most prominent user, with nearly 129 million followers, his posts often get 10 million or more impressions as counted by Twitter. (There are good reasons to doubt the correctness of these countsbut better data are not readily available.)
But Musk’s opinion count still fluctuates widely. The tweet about bottle feeding reportedly got 118.4 million impressions; his next, a gag sighting previously posted on Reddit and satirically attributed to Abraham Lincoln, got 49.9 million. Some of his tweets from earlier this month had less than 8 million.
The most obvious reason for this discrepancy is that people think that some tweets are better than others. But it doesn’t to have to work like this: you could also change the ranking algorithms so that they show your posts anyway.
Terrified of losing their jobs, this is the system Twitter engineers are building right now.
“He bought the company, made it a point to expose what he believed was broken and manipulated under previous management, then turns around and manipulates the platform to force engagement from all users to hear only his voice,” said a current employee. “I think we’re past the point of believing that he actually wants the best for everyone here.”