Elon Musk’s impending takeover of Twitter has sparked warnings on the left that the platform will be inundated with hate speech and misinformation under his leadership, especially in the run-up to upcoming election cycles.
Musk hasn’t detailed the version of Twitter he plans to use, but he’s announced he’s creating a platform focused on what he sees as “free speech,” meaning less content moderation. and a high probability that former President Trump will regain access to his once-favorite account.
With the deal closing in after Musk agreed to go through with his purchase of the company and a judge dropped the trial in Twitter’s lawsuit against the billionaire, those changes could be fast approaching — and they’ve got critics concerned.
“Even if you don’t use Twitter, it affects you,” Angelo Carusone, chairman of the left-wing watchdog group Media Matters, told The Hill.
He compared Musk’s potential takeover of Twitter to the launch of Fox News more than two decades ago, offering an alternative to balance what the founders saw as a media landscape targeting liberals.
“That has become Fox — and it had a profoundly distorting effect on the news media, on our society. And if you look at what Musk is saying about social media, we’re at the same time, just updated 30 years later,” said Carusone. .
“[Musk] sees Twitter and the policies he wants to put in place and the way he wants to use the platform as a way of balancing those other social networks,” he added.
The changes Musk could make to Twitter “will reshape and influence the way other platforms deal with disinformation, extremism, harassment and abuse,” he said.
Billionaire Tesla and CEO of SpaceX reached an agreement with Twitter in April to buy the company for $44 billion, but in the summer withdrew from the deal, accusing Twitter of not disclosing information about spam bots on the platform. Twitter denied the allegations and sued Musk to hold him accountable for his deal.
This week, Musk said he would agree to his offer again and tried to get the case dropped. Twitter is still pushing for his trial of Musk, but a judge dropped the case and gave Musk until October 28 to close the deal or face a lawsuit in November.
A constant throughout the five-month trial was Musk’s pledge to embrace his vision of free speech, one that appears to be consistent with the lax content moderation measures Republicans have been advocating.
“I don’t do Twitter for the money. It’s not like I’m trying to buy a yacht and can’t afford it. I have no boats. But I think it’s important that people have a maximum trust and inclusive way of exchanging ideas and that it should be as trustworthy and transparent as possible,” Musk, who previously called himself a “free speech absolutist,” said in an interview. with the Financial Times was published Friday.
At the same time, he seems to be trying to separate his views from those of the fringe sites that have sprung up to cater to right-wing users — including Trump’s Truth Social. He called the former president’s app “essentially a right-wing echo chamber.”
“It might as well be called Trumpet,” Musk said.
Musk’s own style of using Twitter may lead to how he runs the company. During the on-and-off deal, he used his account on the platform to call top executives. For example, at one point in May, he tweeted a lone poo emoji in response to a lengthy explanation from Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal about bots.
“He’s a leading Twitter troll himself,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights.
“He likes to insult people on Twitter and I think the fact that that is his motivation, as opposed to a clear business plan for Twitter, or even a clear ideological plan… makes the situation very volatile and difficult to predict. Because I think a lot of it has to do with his whims and how he feels when he wakes up on any given day,” Barrett added.
That troll-esque approach could cause Twitter to “slide back into” the “real cesspool” it was five to 10 years ago, Barrett said. As Twitter grew in those years, it implemented more mitigation measures to curb harassment and other forms of hate speech.
Feminist group UltraViolet warned that Musk’s changes could especially hurt marginalized communities online.
“If this deal goes through, Twitter will become an even more dangerous place for women, threats of online violence against black women and women of color will skyrocket, and anti-trans content will take over user feeds,” said Bridget Todd, UltraViolet communications director. said in a statement.
Musk has taken the most concrete look at his plans for Twitter changes when it comes to the fate of Trump’s account.
Twitter took one of the strictest steps by any tech company regarding Trump’s social media accounts after last year’s January 6, 2021 Capitol attack, which put a permanent ban on the former president’s tweets about the riot. that day were in violation of Twitter’s glorification of violence policy. Business leaders repeatedly doubled down that the ban would be permanent even if Trump becomes president again.
But Musk has other plans. In May, he said he would roll back the ban, calling it a “morally bad decision” and “utter foolishness”.
If Trump is allowed back on Twitter, it would give him access to the account he most used to post online when he became president and while in office.
It could also influence other platforms to lift their ban on Trump.
“Relaxing Twitter and allowing the former president to return to the platform would put pressure on the other platforms to do the same,” Barrett said.
Meta, the parent company’s new name for Facebook, has already teased Trump back in January. The platform said Trump’s temporary suspension would be re-evaluated in 2023, two years after it was introduced.
“It is likely that Meta will restore Donald Trump’s Facebook account, but it is not certain, there is clearly a window of engagement there. It’s a guarantee they’ll restore his Facebook account if Twitter does, the fact is,” Carusone said.
Getting Trump, or other figures who have been banned, back to participate could play a key role in the run-up to the 2024 election and in past contests.
Carusone said the change of ownership on Twitter could affect the interim races and the stories of their results, pending the deal closing on the new October deadline.
“I don’t think he’ll allow Twitter to enforce those policies early on, even in close proximity. So I think the medium-term effects will definitely be smaller than 2024, but they’ll feel them.” Especially in the races that are very tight and contentious,” he said.
While figures on the left lament the potential changes, Musk’s view on Twitter on the right has been embraced. Republicans, including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), poised to take control of the House Judiciary Committee if the GOP wins the House in November, applauded Musk’s push to buy the company.
“Two things the left hates: Elon Musk and the First Amendment,” Jordan tweeted Wednesday.
Musk’s renewed takeover bid comes as online content moderation is at a turning point.
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Motivated by accusations that tech companies are censoring content with an anti-conservative bias, Republican-led states are trying to pass laws that would tie the hands of those companies when they want to remove posts or accounts that violate their policies. Florida and Texas are embroiled in legal challenges with tech industry groups over the laws, and one of the cases is expected to go to Supreme Court.
At the same time, another case involving the controversial tech company liability shield, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is already scheduled to be heard by the country’s supreme court this session.
“The social media industry is now subject to a kind of legal pincer movement where people are coming at it from very different orientations, but all those approaches, those attacks threaten the way the social media industry does business – and I think Elon Musk is. also is. a third threat,” Barrett said. “He is not legislation, and he is not litigating, but he is posing a threat through a volatile personality who will own a large platform and potentially disrupt the general direction towards greater self-regulation on the part of that platform in particular.