X will once again show headlines, Musk announces, undoing possible harmful change

By: nikolaj kristensen&
November 23 2023

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X will once again show headlines, Musk announces, undoing possible harmful change

Source: Reuters. Composite: Matthew Hunter/Logically Facts

Elon Musk, the owner of X (formerly Twitter), announced on Thursday that the platform will soon once again display headlines of shared articles. 

“In an upcoming release, X will overlay title in the upper portion of the image of a URL card,” Musk said in a post on November 23. URL card refers to a clickable version of an article’s lead image which is currently all that’s shown when article links are shared on the platform.

The release will undo a change to remove headlines from X that took effect on October 4. Musk had explained the change to get rid of headlines as a way to improve the platform’s aesthetics.

That change allowed users to see only an article’s lead image and the source web domain superimposed in the bottom left corner of all posts with a link to an article. Previously, the image was accompanied by a headline and a one-line summary.

This is how shared articles are currently displayed on X, with the web domain for the source of the shared article superimposed on the article’s lead image. With the new change, users will once again be able to see the article’s headline (Source: X/Screenshot)

“It’s difficult to ascertain the full impact of this decision in lieu of empirical data before and after the platform changes were implemented,” Sander van der Linden, a professor at the University of Cambridge and author of “Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects our Minds and How to Build Immunity,” told Logically Facts of Musk’s latest announcement. 

One potential upside of not showing the headlines is to avoid clickbait and rage bait incentives, while on the downside, it suppresses factual headlines and makes it more likely for people to offer their own headline, which could prove much worse in terms of accuracy, explains van der Linden.

“Overall, it’s hard to say, but my educated guess would be that it’s better to have the headlines so that misinformation can at least be identified more easily and relevant context is provided to users alongside a post,” says van der Linden.

Reset of unpopular change

Previous to the latest announcement, experts had criticized the October 4 change of ridding the platform of headlines. “The change [to remove headlines] means that it's incredibly easy to present images out of context to spread misinformation,” Liza Fazio, a cognitive psychologist at Vanderbilt University who has studied how people learn correct and incorrect information, told Logically Facts.

In a 2020 piece she wrote for The Conversation, she detailed how out-of-context images are an especially powerful form of misinformation. 

In the piece, Fazio lists a number of reasons why that is. For one, images capture our attention. Seeing an image helps us more quickly retrieve related information from memory. People tend to use the ease with which we retrieve information as a signal that the information is true. Also, images let us more easily imagine an event happening, which can make it feel more true.

Fazio also said that the new way X superimposed the web domain for the source over an image ran the risk of lending legitimacy to whatever headline or text, true or false, a user may juxtapose with the image. 

“Picking, for example, a post about Donald Trump's current NYC court case could use a washingtonpost.com link and an image of Trump outside the courthouse but incorrectly assert that he was either convicted or proven innocent. The image would still contain the washingtonpost.com watermark - suggesting to people that it is verified news, but would instead provide misinformation,” explained Fazio. 

This happened right out of the gate, as the change on October 4 sparked misinformation where X users accompanied articles’ images with misleading text. In one example, a Fortune article reporting on the change using an image of Musk was coupled with an unsubstantiated claim that Musk was supporting President Joe Biden for re-election. Though some were no doubt meant jokingly, the posts did highlight the risk of getting rid of preview headlines. 

Immediately after the October 4 change took effect, X users accompanied articles’ images with misleading text. (Source: X/Screenshots)

Steve Buckley, a lecturer in media and communications at City University of London, echoed Fazio's points and added that removing headlines would further undermine trust in traditional news organizations. He also worried about what getting rid of headlines could mean for news organizations and their efforts to inform the public. “Headlines are a critical factor in whether or not someone decides to read the rest of a news story. Without a headline, people will be far less inclined to engage with the news and hence will be less informed of the world around them,” Buckley told Logically Facts. 

The Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7, only a few days after the change removed headlines from X. The war was, as senior fellow at The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, Emerson T. Brooking, noted on X, the first major test of the change regarding headlines. “First impression,” Brooking wrote, “It is a major boon for terrorists and war propagandists. It makes a difficult, fast-moving situation absolutely indecipherable.”

A week into the war, Shayan Sardarizadeh, a BBC journalist covering disinformation, extremism, and conspiracy theories, told Reuters Institute, “In the first couple of days of the conflict, the volume of misinformation on X was beyond anything I've ever seen.”

Logically Facts has contacted X for comment, but has received only automated replies of “Busy now, please check back later.”

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before