By Levi Sumagaysay
With Elon Musk on track to own Twitter Inc. as early as next week, civil-rights organizations voiced fear that hate speech, extremism and misinformation could increase on the platform just before the midterm elections.
Twitter in recent years has banned or suspended foreign and domestic terrorists, white supremacists and COVID-19 deniers in an attempt to crack down on abuse and harassment on the platform.
Musk has said he would allow former President Donald Trump and likely others who have been banned to return to the platform, which has been attempting to combat misinformation and disinformation campaigns since the 2016 election that put Trump in the White House. In May, Musk called Twitter’s removal of Trump from the platform after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection “a morally bad decision.”
Text messages revealed recently as part of the legal battle between Twitter and Musk also reflect the expectation that the Tesla Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203558040/composite TSLA +0.03% chief executive — who has called himself a free-speech absolutist — is set to side with people who have been banned from Twitter.
“Are you going to liberate Twitter from the censorship happy mob?” podcaster Joe Rogan texted Musk, to which Musk responded, “I will provide advice, which they may or may not choose to follow.”
In a text to Twitter Chief Executive Parag Agrawal, Musk said, “would be great to unwind permanent bans, except for spam accounts and those that explicitly advocate violence.”
Another text to Musk, from someone whose name was redacted, said: “It will be a delicate game of letting right wingers back on Twitter and how to navigate that.”
Right-wing figures are looking to Musk as their “free-speech” champion and celebrated the news when he offered to buy Twitter in April. They include Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has been suspended by the social network for tweeting in support of tweets that misgendered U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, the first trans cabinet official, and reportedly said Musk buying Twitter “could turn out to be a pivot point in our history.” (Fox News parent Fox Corp. /zigman2/quotes/207816609/composite FOXA -0.93% and News Corp /zigman2/quotes/201755982/composite NWSA -0.60% , the parent of MarketWatch publisher Dow Jones, share common ownership.)
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican whose personal account was permanently kicked off Twitter for spreading COVID-19 misinformation, tweeted from her congressional account that she expects her personal account will be restored when Musk “seals the deal.”
After foreign actors helped spread fake news on social networks that is believed to have impacted the 2016 elections, online platforms have stepped up moderation efforts. With the midterm elections about a month away, changes at Twitter could affect the dissemination of election-related misinformation, said Evan Feeney, deputy senior campaign director at the racial-justice organization Color of Change. He said it could all have “a destabilizing effect” on the election.
Musk “controlling every aspect” of Twitter “underscores the crisis we’re facing across tech companies when a single billionaire is in charge,” Feeney said. “It puts our democracy at stake.”
Misinformation and disinformation proliferated on Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite META -2.36% — which is majority controlled by billionaire co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg — before, during and after the 2016 elections. The company has since taken steps to combat fake news on its platform, and has also banned Trump and others.
“Twitter reaches more than just its users,” said Jelani Drew-Davi, campaigns director for Kairos Action, an organization that works on campaigns that involve technology, racial justice and democracy. “It’s a place of huge global and political significance.”
Referring to the the deadly “Unite the Right” white-supremacist rally in 2017 that was largely organized online , Drew-Davi said online abuse can “leak” offline: “Before Charlottesville, I didn’t think I realized how much power the internet had.”
A year after the rally, Kairos, Color of Change and other advocacy groups formed or joined Change the Terms, a coalition to push online platforms to step up their efforts against hate, abuse and misinformation, which they said have resulted in changes at Twitter and elsewhere.
The women’s advocacy group UltraViolet has tracked online platforms’ policies and practices in protecting women from abuse. Last year, it released a report card that graded online platforms on how well they were serving women, and it showed Twitter had made some progress. It had the second-best overall grade, a C-, behind Reddit, which got a C. The group gave Twitter an A for its policy of allowing witnesses to a policy violation to report it, and Bs for including misogyny in its transparency reports; creating a clear moderation process; and building algorithms that push users to engage with reliable sources of information.
“We should all be terrified” of a possible rollback of that progress, said Bridget Todd, communications director at UltraViolet, in a statement.
They have acted on that fear. UltraViolet, Kairos, Media Matters for America and about two dozen other advocacy groups for women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community sent a letter to advertisers in May, urging them to insist that a Musk-owned Twitter stick to standards that include keeping actors who engage in abuse, harassment and misinformation off the platform.
“As top advertisers on Twitter, your brand risks association with a platform amplifying hate, extremism, health misinformation, and conspiracy theorists,” the letter said.
Twitter did not return a request for comment.
Trump, for his part, has said he does not plan to return to Twitter and intends to remain on his own social-media platform, Truth Social. Truth Social, like other fledgling social-media networks where conservatives have flocked in recent years because of their lack of content moderation, have not been able to compete with the reach that Twitter offers.
The special-purpose acquisition company that has agreed to buy Truth Social, Digital World Acquisition Corp. /zigman2/quotes/229933747/composite DWAC -1.74% , saw shares decline 5.3% Tuesday, but rebounded slightly Wednesday. Its shares have been trading at their lowest prices since the acquisition was announced in recent weeks.