Elon Musk’s looming Twitter takeover has sparked warnings on the left that under his leadership the platform will be flooded with hate speech and misinformation, especially ahead of upcoming election cycles.
Musk has not provided a detailed picture of the version of Twitter he plans to run, but he has predicted the creation of a platform focused on what he considers “freedom of expression,” meaning there would be less content moderation and a high likelihood that previously President Trump regains access to his once-favored account.
With the deal pending after Musk agreed to follow through on the purchase of the company and a judge stayed the trial in Twitter̵[ads1]7;s lawsuit against the billionaire, those changes could be approaching quickly — and they have critics worried.
“Even if you don’t use Twitter, this is going to affect you,” Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters, told The Hill.
He compared the potential Musk acquisition of Twitter to when Fox News launched more than two decades ago, offering an alternative to balance what the founders saw as a media landscape that was skewed toward liberals.
“That’s what Fox became — and it had a profoundly distorting effect on the news media, on our society. And if you look at what Musk says about social media, we’re in the same moment, just updated 30 years later,” Carusone said.
“[Musk] looks at Twitter, and the policies he wants to put in place and the way he wants to use the platform, as a way to balance out the other social networks,” he added.
The changes Musk can make to Twitter “are going to start to reshape and affect” how other platforms interact with disinformation, extremism, harassment and abuse, he said.
The billionaire Tesla and SpaceX chief reached an agreement with Twitter to buy the company for $44 billion in April, but over the summer he pulled out of the deal, accusing Twitter of not being current with information about spambots on the platform. Twitter denied the allegations and sued Musk to hold him accountable for his deal.
This week, Musk said he would again accept his offer and sought to have the case dismissed. Twitter is still pushing for the lawsuit against Musk, but a judge stayed the case and gave Musk until October 28 to end the deal or face a November trial date.
A constant throughout the five-month process has been Musk’s pledge to embrace his vision of free speech, one that appears to be in line with the lax content moderation measures Republicans have advocated.
“I don’t do Twitter for the money. It’s not like I’m trying to buy a yacht and I can’t afford it. I don’t own any boats. But I think it’s important that people have a maximally reliable and inclusive means of exchanging ideas and that it should be as reliable and transparent as possible, said Musk, who has previously called himself a “free speech absolute” in an interview with the Financial Times published Friday.
At the same time, he appears to be trying to separate his views from what governs 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 a trumpet,” Musk said.
Musk’s own style of using Twitter may be indicative of how he leads the company. Through the on-again, off-again deal, he used his account on the platform to call out top executives. At some point in May, for example, he tweeted a lone poop emoji in response to a lengthy explanation from Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal about bots.
“He’s a premier Twitter troll himself,” said Paul Barrett, a deputy director at New York University’s Sterns Center for Business and Human Rights.
“He loves to offend people on Twitter, and I think the fact that that’s 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. For me 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.
The troll-like approach could cause Twitter to “slide back towards” the “real cesspool” it was five to 10 years ago, Barrett said. As Twitter grew in those years, it implemented several moderation measures to curb harassment and other forms of hate speech.
Feminist group UltraViolet warned that Musk’s changes could particularly harm 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,” UltraViolet communications director Bridget Todd said in a statement.
Musk has given the most concrete insight into his plans for Twitter changes when it comes to the fate of Trump’s account.
Twitter took part the strictest steps of any tech company regarding Trump’s social media accounts after the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021 last year, imposing a permanent ban after deeming the former president’s tweets about the riot that day violated Twitter’s glorification of violent politics. Business leaders repeatedly doubled down that the ban would be permanent, even if Trump runs for re-election.
But Musk has other plans. In May he said he would reverse the ban, calling it a “morally bad decision” and “foolish in the extreme”.
If Trump is allowed back on Twitter, it would give him access to the account he used most to post online when he was running for president and while in office.
It could also influence other platforms to lift the ban on Trump.
“Taking it easy on 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 new parent company name for Facebook, has already teased potentially letting Trump continue in January. The platform said the temporary suspension of Trump would be reviewed in 2023, two years after it was put in place.
“It’s likely that Meta is going to recover Donald Trump’s Facebook account, but it’s not certain, there’s clearly a window of engagement there. It’s a guarantee that they will restore his Facebook account if Twitter does, that’s a fact,” Carusone said.
Allowing Trump, or other figures who have been banned, to return could play a key role leading up to the 2024 election, and in earlier contests.
Carusone said Twitter changing hands could affect the midterm races, and the narrative of their results, pending completion of the deal by the new October deadline.
“I don’t think he’s going to allow Twitter to enforce these policies early, not even immediately. So I think the effects will be less, certainly, in the interim than they will be for 2024, but they will feel them. Especially in the races like are very dense and contentious, he said.
While figures on the left bemoan the potential changes, Musk’s vision for Twitter has been embraced by the right. Republicans, including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is poised to take control of the House Judiciary Committee if the GOP wins the House in November, cheered Musk’s pressure to buy the company.
“Two things the left hates: Elon Musk and the First Amendment,” Jordan tweeted Wednesday.
Musk’s renewed takeover efforts come as online content moderation faces a tipping point.
Motivated by accusations that tech companies are censoring content with an anti-conservative bias, Republican-led states are trying to put laws in place that would tie the hands of those companies when they try to remove posts or accounts that violate their policies. Florida and Texas are locked in legal challenges with tech industry groups over the laws, and one of the cases is expected to end up before the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, another case involving technology companies’ controversial liability shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is already scheduled to be heard by the nation’s Supreme Court this session.
“The social media industry is now subject to a sort of legal quagmire with people coming at it from very different directions, but all of these approaches, these abuses threaten how the social media industry does business — and I think Elon Musk is a third threat,” Barrett said . “He’s not legislation, and he’s not litigation, but he’s a threat via a volatile personality who’s going to own a big platform and possibly disrupt the general direction toward more self-regulation from that part of that platform in particular.