The so-called “cage match” between billionaires Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg may or may not ever happen. But the two tech moguls are already waging battle for social media users.
Zuckerberg’s found early success luring dissatisfied Twitter users to his new competitor, Threads, which launched earlier this month and quickly amassed 100 million users within days. And part of that success may be thanks to Musk.
Mounting criticisms of Musk — from his changes to Twitter to his frequent online trolling — certainly appear to be benefitting Zuckerberg and Threads, as the Tesla CEO’s popularity has suffered with the general public. At the end of 2022, after he acquired Twitter, Musk’s net favorability had dropped by 13 points among U.S. adults, according to a survey by Morning Consult.
Just last year, experts questioned Zuckerberg’s leadership abilities, saying he was slowly pushing Meta toward failure. The billionaire entrepreneur also faced public scrutiny after firing thousands of employees during 2022’s mass tech layoffs.
While there has yet to be any evidence showing that Musk’s mounting detractors have provided a boon to Zuckerberg’s own favorability ratings, it certainly could be providing 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 bond with other people over a shared opponent or issue, even when there is little else in common,” Harvard-trained psychologist Dr. Cortney Warren tells CNBC Make It. “It helps us feel like a group member, thereby giving us a sense of belonging.”
This phenomenon can occur for a plethora of reasons, Warren explains, but largely because antipathy forms stronger bonds than empathy, research shows. In this case, a common disdain for Musk’s Twitter could be the cause for Thread’s flood of new users.
“Having a shared enemy helps us feel in control and justified,” Warren says.
For now, Musk seems to be a shared enemy for the many Twitter users and former employees who have criticized his drastic changes to the platform. Since acquiring Twitter for $44 billion last year, the tech mogul has fired thousands of employees, reinstated banned accounts, made users pay for verification and implemented rate limits, which cap the number of tweets users can read each day.
The updates sent many users running to find an alternative, causing an influx of traffic to platforms like Zuckerberg’s Threads, along with Bluesky and even Spill, which is owned by ex-Twitter employees.
Threads launched earlier this month with a promise that the platform would “enable positive, productive conversations” at a time when Twitter has been criticized, and seen advertisers flee, as hate speech reportedly surged on the platform under Musk’s leadership.
It’s unclear if Zuckerberg is actively using the public’s distaste for Musk to boost his latest product, or if his newfound success occurred naturally as people seek a Twitter alternative. But Warren makes it clear that growing a business using the “common enemy effect” may not be sustainable.
“When done intentionally by a business or leader to gain popularity by bad mouthing or creating dislike for an opponent, it is quite manipulative. In that way, it detracts from the actual issues at hand and focuses on the character (or lack thereof oftentimes) of the opponent often in an exaggerated way,” she says.
Threads has already seen engagement drop off, as the number of daily active users has declined from 49 million to 23.6 million over the course of a week, according to a study from data-tracking site SimilarWeb.
“[The common enemy effect] is often a slippery slope to build a business around, although it may be effective in getting people to buy into a common cause,” Warren says.
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