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Musk buys a political dilemma

Trump’s possible return to Twitter shakes the political landscape

Elon Musk carrying a sink through Twitter headquarters on Oct. 26 Associated Press/Twitter page of Elon Musk

Musk buys a political dilemma

“The bird is freed” read the statement announcing a change of Twitter ownership months in the making. Billionaire and Tesla CEO Elon Musk walked into Twitter headquarters on Oct. 26 and changed his bio on the platform to “Chief Twit” on the same day. But the $44 billion acquisition also bought a political maelstrom.

Musk now inherits not only the world’s largest social media platform but also a long-standing cold war between former President Donald Trump and social media. Whether or not Trump is allowed to reactivate his account, Twitter’s new owner faces a barrage of questions over misinformation, free speech, and politics.

Musk has described himself as a “free speech absolutist” and criticized the platform for having a “left bias” against conservative accounts. Many such accounts migrated to platforms like Gab, Parler, and Trump’s own Truth Social, where each post is labeled a “truth.” Over the summer, Musk said he wants to reform Twitter. The vision: turn the site into “a common digital town square where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.”

It’s the possibility of violence that has the rest of Twitter on its toes. Trump was booted off the platform in January 2021 under a lifetime ban. A team of high-ranking Twitter executives said his tweets contributed to the riot at the U.S. Capitol. On Thursday, many of those executives, including CEO Parag Agrawal and Chief Legal Counsel Vijaya Gadde, were fired, though they exited with hefty payouts.

In their wake, Musk deals with the delicate balance between becoming a self-created champion of free speech and keeping advertisers and users happy. And with less than a week until midterm elections, every move has a political implication.

One such decision is to keep the Trump question open for now. Musk clarified that until he has created a content moderation council, no banned accounts will be restored. That includes the accounts of Trump, his former adviser Steve Bannon, commentator Jordan Peterson, and, most recently, rapper Kanye West, who now goes by Ye. Some banned users, such as radio host Stew Peters and far-right political commentator Nick Fuentes, tried to revive their accounts since Twitter’s ownership changed hands only to get re-banned.

Trump himself claims he won’t go back to Twitter even if allowed. He says he prefers his own social media platform, Truth Social. But while on Twitter, Trump admitted to using it to seize attention. In a 2017 Fox interview, he said, “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media.” In 2019, he likened Twitter to an instantaneous headline grabber: “I go, ‘watch this.’ Boom. I press it, and within two seconds, ‘We have breaking news.’”

After Musk’s takeover, Trump posted that Twitter is “now in sane hands,” while claiming that Truth Social’s numbers surpass all other social media platforms. Trump’s Twitter account had 88 million followers. His Truth Social one numbers only 4.5 million.

“Trump is always a double-edged sword,” political analyst and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics Larry Sabato told Time. “He is going to motivate Republicans and Trumpites. There is nothing that infuriates, not just Democrats, but many independents and a few Republicans, more than Donald Trump’s musings or attacks.”

Twitter has an “Election Squad,” which is made up of department leaders who have been training for more than a year. The team analyzes posts to promote credible news, put disclaimers on false information, and manage spam, or bot, accounts. Earlier this week, The Washington Post wrote that 2,000 China-based accounts were attempting to stoke political tensions and influence the U.S. midterm elections. Twitter flagged the bots for amplifying polarizing topics and removed them for violating rules on manipulation and spam.

In August, Twitter introduced its civic integrity policy for the U.S. 2022 midterms. The policy includes information for users to fact-check pictures, adding “political candidate” onto profiles and posts, and adding a misinformation label to posts flagged as problematic. It describes concerning content as anything that undermines confidence in the election, intimidation or dissuasion from voting, or false claims about election results. Twitter said it will label the post as misinformed and link to other information: “In cases where there is potential for harm associated with the false or misleading claim, the Tweet may not be liked or shared to prevent the spread of the misleading information.”

A coalition of 26 left-wing organizations, spearheaded by Media Matters, issued an open letter to advertisers, urging them to keep the pressure on Musk to keep the civic integrity policy in place: “As top advertisers on Twitter, your brand risks association with a platform amplifying hate, extremism, health misinformation, and conspiracy theorists. Under Musk’s management, Twitter risks becoming a cesspool of misinformation.”

Musk says this is exactly what he is trying to prevent. He promised to dig into lifting shadow bans and relieving user restrictions. At the same time, he wrote to anxious advertisers that the site should not become “a free-for-all hellscape where anything can be said with no consequences.”

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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