Harvard Psychologist on Twitter’s Decline and the ‘Common Enemy Effect’

The so-called “cage fight” between billionaires Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg may or may not ever happen. But the two tech moguls are already fighting over social media users.

Zuckerberg found early success in luring dissatisfied Twitter users to his new competitor, Threads, which launched earlier this month and quickly topped 100 million users in a matter of days. And some of that success may be thanks to Musk.

The mounting criticism of Musk — from his switch to Twitter to his frequent online trolling — certainly seems to benefit Zuckerberg and Threads as the Tesla CEO’s popularity with the general public has suffered. According to a Morning Consult poll, Musk’s net popularity had dropped 13 points among US adults by the end of 2022 after he took over Twitter.

It’s perhaps a somewhat tongue-in-cheek twist for the meta-CEO, who over the years has already faced his own public backlash with the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Just last year, pundits questioned Zuckerberg’s leadership abilities, saying he was slowly driving Meta to failure. The billionaire entrepreneur also came under public scrutiny after laying off thousands of employees in the wake of mass tech layoffs in 2022.

While there’s still no evidence that Musk’s mounting critics have given Zuckerberg’s own popularity ratings a boon, it could well yield a business benefit — one that might reflect what psychologists call the “common enemy effect.”

“The common-enemy effect is a psychological phenomenon in which we connect with other people about a common adversary or issue, even when we otherwise have little in common,” says Harvard-trained psychologist Dr. Cortney Warren told CNBC Make It. “It helps us feel like part of a group and gives us a sense of belonging.”

This phenomenon can occur for a variety of reasons, Warren explains, but primarily because antipathy forms stronger bonds than empathy, research shows. In this case, a general disdain for Musk’s Twitter could be the cause of the flood of new users in Thread.

“When we have a common enemy, we feel controlled and justified,” says Warren.

Currently, Musk appears to be a common enemy among the many Twitter users and former employees who have criticized his drastic changes to the platform. Since acquiring Twitter last year for $44 billion, the tech mogul has fired thousands of employees, reintroduced suspended accounts, made users pay for verification, and imposed plan caps that cap the number of tweets users can read each day.

The updates caused many users to look for an alternative, resulting in an influx of traffic to platforms like Zuckerberg’s Threads, as well as Bluesky and even Spill, which is owned by former Twitter employees.

Threads launched earlier this month by promising that the platform would “enable positive, productive conversations,” at a time when Twitter has faced criticism and advertisers flee as hate speech on the platform has reportedly increased under Musk’s leadership.

It’s unclear if Zuckerberg is actively using the public’s dislike of Musk to boost his latest product, or if his newfound success came naturally as people searched for a Twitter alternative. But Warren makes it clear that growing a company using the “common enemy effect” may not be sustainable.

“When a company or an executive does this on purpose to gain popularity through bad-mouthing or dislike of an opponent, that’s quite manipulative. That way it distracts from the real issues and often overly focuses on the character (or often lack thereof) of the opponent,” she says.

According to a study by data-tracking site SimilarWeb, threads are already seeing a drop in engagement as daily active users fell from 49 million to 23.6 million over the course of a week.

“[The common enemy effect] is often a tricky way to build a business, although it can be effective in getting people to join a common cause,” says Warren.

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