Elon Musk, who has more than 100 million followers, had owned Twitter for less than three full days when he shared a post containing misinformation — then hours later deleted it.
The article claimed without evidence that Pelosi was drunk at the time of the assault and “in a dispute with a male prostitute.” The article, which was amplified by several right-wing figures, cited no sources and attributes its contents to IMHO — internet shorthand for “in my humble opinion.”
Musk faced immediate and widespread backlash from users who said the tweet revealed his Twitter ownership as unserious and accused him of promoting an unfounded conspiracy theory.
One commenter, Yael Eisenstat, a vice president of the Anti Defamation League and former Facebook executive, noted on Twitter that Musk seemed to be violating his own pledge to advertisers last week that the site would not become a “hellscape” under his ownership.
When the world’s richest man/owner of this very site himself traffics in conspiracy theories days after claiming to advertisers that he’s going to be a responsible leader, all I can say is: I’m not overreacting by expressing my concerns. Actions always speak louder than words. pic.twitter.com/00RhlJa4rh
— Yael Eisenstat (@YaelEisenstat) October 30, 2022
Another Twitter user, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and political pundit with nearly 293,000 Twitter followers, suggested Musk eventually would have to ban himself.
It’s already becoming apparent that in order to save Twitter, ultimately Elon’s going to have to ban himself.
— David Rothkopf (@djrothkopf) October 30, 2022
Hours later, Musk deleted his tweet. It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted him to do so.
But it highlights the conflict Musk faces as he takes over a social media platform whose moderation policies he’s consistently criticized as too strict while also pledging that he won’t allow it to become a free-for-all that advertisers might not want to associate with. Already, Musk has had to acknowledge that suspended accounts like former president Donald Trump’s won’t be reinstated until a so-far-undefined “moderation council” has convened to determine policy.
Neither Musk nor Twitter responded to a request for comment.
Musk has one of the largest audiences of any public figure on Twitter, and is among its most prolific tweeters. He has a track record of using his account to promote or allude to misinformation, and to interact with and amplify a circle of prominent right-wing influencers online.
Before closing on his purchase of Twitter, Musk expressed an expansive view of free speech, arguing for little policing beyond platforms removing speech that was clearly illegal. That approach would rule out the policing of misinformation, disinformation, harassment, bullying, and other content that Twitter and other social media companies take action against, through a system of deletions, warning notices, and quiet demotions known as “shadow bans.”
But that willingness to spout misinformation — or to boost it by using the tactic of “just raising questions” — could create major conflicts for him and for Twitter now that he owns the company.
Musk’s tweet Sunday did not appear break any of Twitter’s current rules because it was framed as a question and because the types of misinformation Twitter bans are fairly limited. It’s unknown if he faced pressure inside Twitter or from advertisers before he deleted it.
Historically, social media company owners, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have tried to avoid controversial public political opinions because they don’t want to be perceived as putting their thumb on the scale of the algorithms that govern public expression. Moreover, social media platforms including Twitter have made a point of pushing the public toward authoritative sources of information to counter the proliferation of misinformation on their services. Putting up curated links and labels to reputable news sites is a key part of Twitter’s and other companies’ strategies to counter misleading content.
Advertisers, which are the main source of revenue for Twitter, are also known to protest such content. An advertiser boycott of Facebook in 2020 helped force that social media platform to adopt tougher policies on hate speech.
“Musk owning Twitter is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse when it comes to political misinformation,” said Joan Donovan, research director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. “When he was just a user, that did not matter as much as it does now because people may come to distrust the platform if they don’t trust the owner’s core values.”
Donovan said the Musk tweet failed to recognize Twitter’s value as a place where people seek authoritative information about everything from geopolitical conflicts to elections.
“We would imagine that in order to be seen as a trusted interlocutor, like a politician, business owner, or journalist, he would care about the quality of news in the so-called public square,” she said, adding that he should issue a correction.
The Republican Party and its mouthpieces now regularly spread hate and deranged conspiracy theories. It is shocking, but not surprising, that violence is the result. As citizens, we must hold them accountable for their words and the actions that follow.https://t.co/MQor4NDFeE
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 29, 2022
Twitter largely does not prohibit misinformation except in certain cases. The company has a “crisis misinformation policy,” launched earlier this year during the Ukraine war, which lets the company put a warning notice on and demote content that “mischaracterizes conditions on the ground” as a conflict evolves.
The company also bans “deep fakes,” or the posting of any imagery or video that has been manipulated, as well as misinformation about the coronavirus. Content that purposefully attempts to mislead the public about voting processes or an election outcome is demoted by the company’s algorithms and could receive warning labels and links to authoritative information.
In 2020, Musk tweeted that “Kids are essentially immune” to covid-19, a comment that appeared to come right up against Twitter’s ban of content that contradicts established public health information about the virus (Children of all ages can contract and experience complications from the coronavirus, according to the Mayo Clinic, although are less likely to become severely ill).
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In 2018 Musk tweeted he had “Funding secured” to take Tesla private at $420 per share, leading the Securities and Exchange Commission to accuse him of misleading investors. Musk and the SEC settled, leading Musk to relinquish his board chairmanship of Tesla and for he and the company to each pay $20 million fines.
He has also taken down tweets in the past. Just this month, Musk tweeted and then deleted a meme that showed he, former president Donald Trump and rapper and fashion designer Ye (formerly Kanye West) lording over various social networks (Ye bought the conservative network Parler and Trump controls his own network, TruthSocial). Twitter users captured screenshots of the tweet, which read “In retrospect, it was inevitable.”