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Oct. 10, 2023, 12:06 p.m.

Elon Musk took the headlines away from Twitter — but you can bring them back with this one weird trick

This browser extension can help you undo one piece of the misinformation-related damage Musk has done to the newsiest of social platforms.

When Elon Musk first announced that he would be removing headlines from links on TAFKA Twitter, he gave a simple if insane reason: It would “greatly improve the esthetics.”

(An aside: Many news outlets treated his spelling of esthetics as a “[sic]“-worthy error. But “aesthetics” and “esthetics,” while closely related, can mean different things. Aesthetics, with the “a,” usually refers to “the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of beauty and the nature of taste…the philosophy of art.” Highfalutin’ stuff. Meanwhile, estheticians “perform cosmetic skin treatments such as facials, superficial chemical peels, body treatments, and waxing…in a spa or salon.” Wikipedia’s “list of aestheticians” includes names like Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Its entry for “esthetician” redirects to “cosmetology.” So while it’s possible that Musk simply misspelled the fancier “aesthetics,” let’s not close off the possibility that he was subtly acknowledging his latest attempt to slap lipstick on a pig.)

Whatever his intentions, last week’s destruction of headlines has been a disaster for those who rely on Twitter for news. In the short term, it led to a surfeit of joke tweets spreading confident lies about Musk himself, leading to the memorable Snopes headline: “Did Elon Musk Endorse Biden, Come Out as Transgender and Die of Suicide?” But especially with the new conflict between Hamas and Israel this weekend, the loss of headlines has made misinformation that much easier to spread. As one OSINT researcher put it yesterday: “For many reasons, this is the hardest time I’ve ever had covering a crisis on here. Credible links are now photos. On the ground news outlets struggle to reach audiences without an expensive blue checkmark. Xenophobic goons are boosted by the platform’s CEO. End times, folks.”

But I have good news! There is a way to bring back all the headlines Elon Musk took away — to return Twitter to something resembling the week-ago status quo. It’s free1, and it’ll only take a few seconds of your time.

It’s a browser extension named Control Panel for Twitter. (Yes, Twitter, not X.) Control Panel offers lots of little tweaks to the Twitter user interface — some of which amount to personal preferences, but others that reverse bad choices the Musk-era company has made. (It can even replace that cheap Unicode X with the old familiar blue bird.)

On Thursday, developer Jonny Buchanan pushed an update that brought a new feature: returning headlines to links.

How does it do it? Well, when Elon stripped away headlines from the user interface, he didn’t strip it away from the underlying code — specifically, in the ARIA labels, a bit of usually unseen html important for accessibility. Buchanan’s code grabs the ARIA labels and reformats it into the familiar headline format we took for granted. (Search for “restoreLinkHeadline” here if you want to see the code.)

The result is that this:

gets turned into this:

I couldn’t install this extension fast enough once it was pointed out to me. (While Control Panel is free for most users, Buchanan will happily let you buy him a cup of coffee.) For Twitter users, the defining quality of the Musk era is powerlessness; no longer constrained by even the logic of public ownership, the platform has become one man’s casual plaything. In this one little case, at least, you have to power to hit ⌘-z.

  1. Well, except for the version for Safari on macOS and iOS, which is $4.99. ↩︎
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Oct. 10, 2023, 12:06 p.m.
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