Technology

Critics sound alarm over ‘Twitter troll’ Elon Musk’s company takeover

Elon Musk’s looming Twitter takeover has triggered warnings on the left that under his leadership the platform will be flooded with hate speech and misinformation, especially ahead of coming election cycles. 

Musk hasn’t provided a detailed picture of the version of Twitter he plans to run, but he’s foreshadowed creating a platform focused on what he deems “free speech,” meaning there would be less content moderation and a strong likelihood of former President Trump regaining access to his once favored account.

With the deal barreling ahead after Musk agreed to follow through on his purchase of the company and a judge halted the trial in Twitter’s lawsuit against the billionaire, those changes could be fast approaching — 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 likened the potential Musk acquisition of Twitter to when Fox News launched more than two decades ago, offering an alternative to balance what its founders viewed as a media landscape that catered to liberals. 

“That’s what Fox became — and it had a profound distorting effect on the news media, on our society. And if you look at what Musk says about social media, we are in the same moment, just updated 30 years later,” Carusone said. 

“[Musk] sees Twitter, and the policies that he wants to put in place and the way that he wants to use the platform, as a way to balance out those other social networks,” he added. 

The changes Musk could make at Twitter are “going to start to reshape and influence” how other platforms interact with disinformation, extremism, harassment and abuse, he said. 

The billionaire Tesla and SpaceX CEO came to an agreement with Twitter to buy the company for $44 billion in April, but over the summer he backed out of the deal and accused Twitter of not being forthcoming with information about spam bots on the platform. Twitter denied the allegations and sued Musk to hold him accountable for his agreement. 

This week Musk said he would, again, agree to his offer and tried to get the case dismissed. Twitter is still pushing for its trial against Musk, but a judge halted the case and gave Musk until Oct. 28 to close the deal or face a November trial date. 

One 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 been advocating for.

“I’m not doing Twitter for the money. It’s not like I’m trying to buy some yacht and I can’t afford it. I don’t own any boats. But I think it’s important that people have a maximally trusted and inclusive means of exchanging ideas and that it should be as trusted and transparent as possible,” Musk, who has previously dubbed himself a “free speech absolutist,” said in an interview with the Financial Times published Friday.

At the same time, he seems to be trying to separate his view from that governing the fringe sites that have popped up to cater to right-wing users — including Trump’s Truth Social. He called the former president’s app “essentially a rightwing echo chamber.” 

“It might as well be called Trumpet,” Musk said. 

Musk’s own style of using Twitter may guide how he leads the company. Throughout the on-and-off-again deal, he used his account on the platform to call out top executives. At one point in May, for instance, 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 of New York University Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights.

“He loves to insult 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 forecast. Because I think a lot of it has to do with his whims and what he’s feeling like when he wakes up on any given day,” Barrett added.

That troll-like approach could lead Twitter to “slide back toward” the “real cesspool” it was five to 10 years ago, Barrett said. As Twitter grew in those years, it implemented more moderation measures to rein in harassment and other forms of hate speech. 

Feminist group UltraViolet warned Musk’s changes could especially harm marginalized communities online. 

“If this deal goes through, Twitter will become an even more dangerous place for women, threats of violence online against Black women and women of color will skyrocket, and anti-trans content will take hold of user feeds,” UltraViolet communications director Bridget Todd said in a statement. 

Musk has offered the most concrete glimpse into his plans for Twitter changes when it comes to the fate of Trump’s account. 

Twitter took among the most stringent steps of any tech company regarding Trump’s social media accounts following the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack last year, putting in place a permanent ban after deeming the former president’s tweets about the riot that day violated Twitter’s glorification of violence policy. Company executives doubled down repeatedly that the ban would be permanent, even if Trump runs for office again. 

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 onto 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 their bans on Trump. 

“Twitter easing up 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 back on in January. The platform said its temporary suspension of Trump would be reevaluated in 2023, two years after it was put in place.

“It is likely that Meta is going to restore 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, it’s a fact,” Carusone said. 

Letting Trump, or other figures that have been banned, back on could play a key role in the lead up to the 2024 election, and in earlier contests. 

Carusone said Twitter changing hands may impact the midterm races, and the narratives about their results, pending the completion of the deal on its new October deadline. 

“I don’t think he’s going to allow Twitter to enforce those policies early on, even in the immediacy. So I think the effects will be smaller, certainly, into the midterms than they will be for 2024, but they will feel them. Especially in the races that are very tight and contested,” he said. 

While figures on the left lament the potential changes, Musk’s vision for Twitter has been embraced on the right. Republicans, including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), poised to take control of the House Judiciary Committee if the GOP wins the House in November, cheered 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 effort comes as online content moderation faces an inflection point. 

Motivated by accusations that tech companies are censoring content with an anti-conservative bias, Republican-led states are trying to put in place laws that would tie the hands of those companies when they seek to remove posts or accounts that violate their policies. Florida and Texas are entrenched in legal challenges with tech industry groups over the laws, and one of the cases is expected to wind up before the Supreme Court. 

At the same time, another case involving tech companies’ controversial liability shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is already slated to be heard by the nation’s high court this session. 

“The social media industry is now subject to kind of a legal pincer maneuver with people coming at it from very different orientations, but all of those approaches, those assaults are threatening to 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 coming to own a major platform and possibly disrupting the general direction toward more self regulation on the part of that platform in particular.

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