Elon Musk plans to ban engagement farming on X. What does this mean for the platform?

Elon Musk at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on April 13.
Elon Musk at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on April 13. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Elon Musk is planning to change the platform formerly known as Twitter once again — but this time, many hope, for the better.

On April 18, Musk, who purchased the company, now called X, in 2022, announced that any accounts found to be participating in engagement farming — a tactic used by social media accounts to get engagement, either by provoking outrage, conversation or employing a popular meme format — "will be suspended and traced to source.” Musk’s post reached over 100 million users and was met with many positive reactions.

Many people have been waiting for this style of posting to be dealt with, which, according to Jamie Cohen, a media studies professor at Queens College in New York, is ruining social media platforms.

“Finally, thank God! This is much needed. I'm so tired of seeing clickbait pages and those who put out fake news solely for engagement farming just for clicks, likes, and comments, and solely for profit, nothing else,” wrote @rawsalerts in a post.

“THIS is what we’ve all been waiting for. Thank you,” posted @nicksortor on X.

Social media engagement can include liking, sharing, reposting and commenting on posts. "Engagement farming" can be done by asking a question about a divisive topic or playing into or copying a meme that has gone viral in the past.

Although engagement farming can be done at a large scale, most of the time it's done with individual accounts. In some cases, accounts may join influencer pods — groups of creators that work together to raise each other’s engagement numbers — that can do it at a larger scale.

For example, a current trend on X is “the look between ‘Q’ and ‘E’ on your keyboard.” The point of this trend is to have the keys between the two chosen letters spell out a phrase and make a joke.

“Look between Y and I on your keyboard, that’s all I want,” @cryahahai wrote in an X post, with the punchline of the joke meaning that all the user wants is “U.”

Users see that this trend is going viral and choose to participate in it. Some people decide to use the format, not for humor, but simply because they know those types of posts are currently getting a lot of attention. Thus, many timelines are now flooded with a single format of post.

There are also several replicas of a tweet praising Apple for allowing users to copy and paste a security code as soon as it comes through a text. This type of post has gone viral before, and several users have tried to recreate the success.

“It's lowest common denominator stuff, but we're compelled to react,” Cohen told Yahoo News. “It's a time waster at best and something you interact with at worst — which of course just makes it work more.”

The more engagement these kinds of posts attract, the more traction they will have with a platform’s algorithm, which will surface them in users’ feeds instead of the accounts they actually follow, thus fueling a cycle of clickbait.

No social media platform is exempt from engagement farming-style posts, but under Musk’s leadership, many X users have observed that such content seems to have become ubiquitous on the platform. Some suggest that X’s Creator Ads Revenue Sharing program, which seems to incentivize the practice, is to blame.

Launched last year, the program required creators to have at least 500 followers, be a verified or X Blue subscriber and have at least 15 million impressions in the three months prior to joining. Creators don’t get paid directly for views, but rather for the amount of people that see ads under viral posts. After a few weeks, Musk lowered the threshold for impressions from 15 million to 5 million, making the program more accessible to creators.

“There’s been engagement farming since the early days of clickbait headlines and listicles in the early 2010s when the recommendation algorithms were just getting started,” Cohen said. “But with X’s incentives, the recommendation system works to optimize engagement bait so the farmers have increased their tactics exponentially.”

X didn’t respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment on the suggestion that its revenue sharing program encourages engagement farming.

X has not provided additional details on how, exactly, it plans to crack down on engagement farming, but Cohen predicts that doing so will be an uphill battle as long as the platform allows users to get paid to post. While there have been changes to the program since its initial launch, there hasn’t been public talk of ending payments for creators.

“As long as Elon incentivizes engagement, a new engagement tactic will appear very quickly,” he said. “There's enough users out there to try every tactic, so it's only a matter of time before another garbage trend appears.”