Pivotal elections in Brazil and the United States will present an early test to Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk and his promise to ease up on the platform’s policies on misinformation.
Voters in both nations have already faced a torrent of misleading claims about candidates, issues and voting. That torrent could become a deluge if Musk makes good on his vows to roll back Twitter’s rules just as millions of voters prepare to cast a ballot.
“This is the most critical time for this work, right before an election,” said Alejandra Caraballo, an instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic who has been monitoring the online response to Musk’s purchase. “We’re going to see a test run with the election in Brazil this Sunday, when we’ll see how bad things get.”
Even if Musk waits until after the elections to make changes, his decision to fire the executive in charge of content moderation raises questions about the company’s ability to combat misinformation and extremist content linked to deepening distrust in democracy.
Musk, the world’s richest man, hasn’t detailed his plans for Twitter, which he purchased this week for $44 billion. But he has called himself a “free speech absolutist” and has said the platform should tolerate any content that is legally permissible.
That’s a threshold that varies widely among countries. In the U.S., it would cover misleading content about vaccines or elections as well as Holocaust denialism and hate speech.
He’s also said he disagreed with Twitter’s decision to banish Donald Trump after the ex-president’s lies about the 2020 election helped spur the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Yet Musk has also signaled that he’d consider some level of moderation, as he did this week when he said he didn’t want Twitter to become a “ free-for-all hellscape.”
On Friday, Musk announced the creation of a committee to review Twitter’s policies on content moderation and the reinstatement of suspended accounts. “No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes,” Musk tweeted.
One of Musk’s first moves as Twitter’s owner was to fire top leaders at the platform, including chief legal counsel Vijaya Gadde, who had overseen Twitter’s content moderation and safety efforts.
Gadde’s departure is not only a blow to Twitter’s current election efforts, but a sign of where Musk may take Twitter, Caraballo said. Musk is also reportedly considering deep layoffs at the company.
Misinformation right before an election
Twitter began preparing for the elections in Brazil and the United States months ago. Over the summer, the platform rolled out a series of policies designed to stop the spread of election-related misinformation while also making it easier for users to find trustworthy sources.
Despite sometimes inconsistent enforcement, Twitter at least had rules in place prohibiting hate speech and the most harmful kinds of misinformation. Those “guardrails” have been shown to be necessary, according to Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a New York-based literary and human rights group.
“Our politicians have learned that trafficking in disinformation can pay off big time,” Nossel told the AP. “Hopefully he (Musk) takes this seriously. Hopefully he’s listening and asking questions. If he makes good on some of his more outlandish promises we could be in trouble.”
Misinformation can have an even greater impact when delivered right before an election, when officials and independent journalists have little time to push back. Sometimes misleading claims about voting can be part of an intentional campaign to confuse or frighten people into staying home. Other times, it can mislead voters about results.
Brazilians have been bombarded by false political claims ahead of this weekend’s presidential election between Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Similarly, there’s been a significant increase in misleading and deceptive content about the election in the U.S. next month, which will decide control of Congress.
Long-time critics of social media moderation cheered Musk’s purchase of Twitter and said it heralded a new day for unfettered online communication.
“He has stated he intends to do away with content moderation … that more speech, not censorship, is the best way to arrive at the truth,” said Jenin Younes, litigation counsel at the New Civil Liberties Alliance.
Eager to test the rules under Twitter’s new owner, some conservative and far-right Twitter users on Friday posted conspiracy theories about COVID-19 or the 2020 election. In many cases, however, the content was already permitted even under Twitter’s old rules.
“I can finally speak the truth on Twitter. Joe Biden did not win the 2020 Election,” comedian and far-right commentator Terrence K. Williams tweeted. Yet on Jan. 6, 2021, Williams posted that the election was rigged and blamed liberals for staging the Jan. 6 insurrection. That post remains up.
Musk will have to weigh many factors before deciding how to moderate content on his new platform, said A.J. Nash, vice president for intelligence at ZeroFox, a cybersecurity firm that tracks misinformation. Advertisers, for example, could become reluctant to place ads on the platform if it becomes too extreme, he said.
Musk may also learn that running a platform with 240 million daily users in dozens of nations is harder than criticizing it from the sidelines, Nash said.
“It’s easy to do that from the stands,” Nash said. “Let’s see what happens now.”
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