Why it matters that Elon Musk deleted a tweet about Paul Pelosi on Twitter

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Elon Musk, who has more than 100 million followers, had owned Twitter for less than three full days when he shared a post with misinformation and then deleted it hours later.

On Sunday, he posted a response to Hillary Clinton that “there is a small possibility that there is more to this story” behind the attack on Paul Pelosi in San Francisco, in connection with an opinion piece in the Santa Monica Observer, a site described by fact checkers as an untrustworthy source favoring the far right.

The article claimed without evidence that Pelosi was drunk at the time of the assault and “in an argument with a prostitute.” The article, which has been amplified by several right-wing figures, cites no source and attributes its content to IMHO – internet shorthand for “in my humble opinion”.

Musk faced an immediate and widespread backlash from users who said the tweet revealed his ownership of Twitter was not serious and accused him of promoting an unfounded conspiracy theory.

One commentator, Yael Eisenstat, vice president of the Anti Defamation League and former Facebook executive, noted on Twitter that Musk appeared to be breaking his own promise to advertisers last week that the site would not become “hell” under his ownership. .

Another Twitter user, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and political pundit with nearly 293,000 Twitter followers, suggested that Musk should eventually ban himself.

Hours later, Musk deleted his tweet. It was not immediately clear what prompted him to do so.

Pelosi attack causes false information to spread

But it highlights the conflict Musk faces as he takes over a social media platform whose moderation policies he consistently criticizes as too strict while promising he won’t allow it to become a free for all of which advertisers might not want to associate themselves with. . Already, Musk has had to acknowledge that suspended accounts like former President Donald Trump’s won’t be reinstated until a hitherto undefined “moderation council” convenes 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 history of using his account to promote or hint at misinformation, and to interact with and amplify a circle of prominent right-wing influencers online.

Before concluding his purchase of Twitter, Musk expressed a broad view of free speech, arguing for little policing beyond platforms suppressing speech that was clearly illegal. This approach would exclude control of misinformation, misinformation, harassment, bullying and other content that Twitter and other social media companies take action against, through a system of removals, warnings and silent demotions known as “phantom bans”.

But this willingness to spread disinformation – or reinforce 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 on Sunday didn’t appear to violate any of Twitter’s current rules because it was phrased as a question and because the types of misinformation bans on Twitter are quite limited. It’s unclear if he was pressured inside Twitter or from advertisers before he removed it.

Historically, social media business owners, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have tried to avoid controversial public political opinions because they don’t want to be seen as putting their thumb on the ladder for algorithms. that govern public expression. Additionally, social media platforms, including Twitter, have made a point of nudging the public to authoritative sources of information to counter the proliferation of misinformation about their services. Placing selected links and tags to reputable news sites is a key part of Twitter and other companies’ strategies to combat misleading content.

Advertisers, who are Twitter’s main source of income, have also been known to protest this content. A boycott of Facebook by advertisers in 2020 helped force this social media platform to adopt tougher hate speech policies.

“Musk owning Twitter is like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop 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, it didn’t matter as much as it does now, because people can come to distrust the platform if they don’t trust the core values. of the owner.”

Donovan said Musk’s tweet failed to recognize Twitter’s value as a place where people seek authoritative information on everything from geopolitical disputes to elections.

Elon Musk takes control of Twitter

“We imagine that in order to be considered a trusted interlocutor, like a politician, a business leader or a journalist, he would care about the quality of information in the so-called public square,” she said, adding that he should publish a corrigendum.

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 allows the company to put a warning and downgrade content that ‘distorts conditions on the ground’ as a conflict evolves.

The company also prohibits “deep fakes” or the posting of any image or video that has been manipulated, as well as misinformation about the coronavirus. Content that deliberately attempts to mislead the public about voting processes or the outcome of an election is downgraded by the Company’s algorithms and may receive warning labels and links to authoritative information.

In 2020, Musk tweeted that “kids are basically immune” to covid-19, a comment that seemed to clash with Twitter’s content ban that contradicts established public health information about the virus (kids of all ages can contract and experience complications from the coronavirus, according to the Mayo Clinic, although they are less likely to become seriously ill).

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In 2018, Musk tweeted that 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 in, leading Musk to relinquish his chairmanship of Tesla’s board and for him and the company to each pay $20 million in fines.

He has also deleted 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) were dominating on various social networks (Ye bought the conservative network Talk and Trump controls his own network, TruthSocial). Twitter users captured screenshots of the tweet, which read “In retrospect, it was inevitable.”

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