HomePoliticsThree reasons Washington is freaking out on Elon Musk right now

Three reasons Washington is freaking out on Elon Musk right now

Or Musk, who says he’s a “free speech absolutist,” could end up scaring users — and inviting a wave of litigation — if he takes down the platform’s efforts to weed out disinformation, racism and other vitriol.

“If they say something that is illegal or just destructive to the world, then maybe there should be a timeout, a temporary suspension. … But I think permabans just fundamentally undermine trust in Twitter,” Musk has said in the past.

Beloved by politicians and journalists, though perhaps not as widely read outside of the Beltway, the platform appears to be headed for major changes that could shape the upcoming midterm elections, and the 2024 presidential election, especially if Trump is allowed to return.

What exactly this means for Washington’s political elite and journalists who rely on the platform for breaking news and political discourse is still up in the air, but here are some potential dangers of a Musk-run Twitter:

A Trump Comeback: Good for Democrats?

With less than five weeks to go until the 2022 midterm elections, Trump’s return could serve as a distraction for the GOP and a key message narrative for Democrats.

“The risk is that it will help Democrats succeed in framing this as an election over Donald Trump, which they would love to do, even though it’s not on the ballot, it’s nowhere near a ballot,” Eric Wilson, partner manager of the Startup Caucus, a Republican campaign technology investment fund, in an interview.

And looking ahead, a Trump comeback could have a “tremendous impact on the 2024 election, especially if Donald Trump is a presidential candidate,” Andrew Bleeker, president of the progressive political public affairs firm Bully Pulpit, said in an interview. Interactive. “You can think of it as a $40 billion donation to the Trump campaign.”

Still, it’s not entirely clear whether Trump would help or hurt Republicans. “It’s like the weather, I can’t know what the weather will be on Election Day, but it will have an impact. It could be good, it could be bad,” Wilson said.

It could also mean the return of the midnight tweet storms that journalists and political editors had come to fear, and expect, during the Trump administration.

Disinformation and hate speech could poison the platform

Despite its ups and downs, Twitter has had one of the most responsible content moderation policies of the big social media platforms, said Mark Jablonowski, president of DSPolitical, an ad-tech firm that supports Democratic candidates.

“Doing that risks Twitter becoming a channel 4 or channel 8, which we really don’t want to see,” he said.

“If Trump is able to support candidates with a very loud megaphone that may not be factually accurate, sharing misinformation and disinformation, that can absolutely push the election away from the Democrats,” Jablonowski said.

Furthermore, less moderation could lead to a dramatic increase in hate speech and extremism on the platform, watchdog groups say.

“I think there is a serious threat to democracy,” Jessica González, co-executive director of the Free Press, a nonpartisan media advocacy organization, said in an interview. “I think we will see prolific conspiracy theories, white supremacists returning to the platform, and many more people who are in power and willing to use platforms to spread hate and harassment campaigns.”

Technology companies, including Twitter, have invested heavily in trying to establish nuanced rules to keep this kind of offensive speech off the platform, Bleeker said. But, he adds, Musk will need to act quickly to recoup his investment, and he will move to subscriptions and cost-cutting measures to do so.

“The fear is that many of the important security mechanisms are the first thing to be done in the name of freedom of expression,” he said.

An explosion of hate speech could also raise significant legal challenges for Twitter, said Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a technology policy think tank.

He noted that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases this term that threaten the coveted liability shield of tech companies. And the regulation of the Digital Services Law in the EU aims to crack down on illegal and harmful content on platforms. “The overall legal environment in which Twitter operates is becoming less forgiving of abuses that are not addressed,” Llanso said.

Exodus of politicians? Determined

In a world where Twitter has zero or very little content moderation, will all of its politicians jump ship? That is a possibility.

“Politicians go where the voters are. And as long as people who are at the forefront of shaping political narratives — meaning journalists, commentators, pundits, political operatives — are active on Twitter, expect politicians to be there,” Wilson said.

“If it becomes an unpleasant place for those people, presumably they will leave and go somewhere else,” he said.

However, political advisers on both sides of the aisle are skeptical that Musk will exploit the platform after paying $44 billion to buy it.

“To make money you need people to be on the platform,” Wilson said. “There are steps between where Twitter is now and an internet cesspool. It’s not one or the other.”

Jablonowski said, “There’s always a chance that I can walk the tightrope and do well.”

Another source of income for Musk, and a big draw to attract more politicians to the platform and keep them there, would be lifting the ban on political advertising that former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey imposed in October 2019.

“Allowing paid media for political campaigns could, in theory, help campaigns amplify a message that combats disinformation on the platform,” Jablonowski said. “But it really depends because politicians would want to advertise on a platform that is full of hate speech and misinformation.”

But a big warning

However, one key point is often overlooked: Twitter has never been very popular with the average voter. And while a Musk takeover may drive some politicians off the platform, it’s still not where most voters spend their time.

“Twitter is not a platform to raise money. It is not a platform to persuade voters. It’s about shaping that narrative for campaigns,” Wilson said.

Bleeker added: “Twitter is the real-time news platform for politics, but it’s not the main place where it will reach the vast majority of voters and really educate the vast majority of voters. Currently, the Facebook and YouTube platforms really have a much larger reach to the real American public.”

Regardless of how it plays out, the Tesla CEO’s $44 billion bid to buy Washington’s favorite social media site appears to have been given the green light by Twitter on Tuesday … for the second time, after he tried to back out of the deal and finally was sued by Twitter this summer. Although the judge of the Delaware Court of Chancery said Wednesday that a planned trial is still underway as of now, scheduled to begin on October 17.

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