The Industry

Twitter May Be Poised to Become a Hellscape Just in Time for the Midterms

The Twitter bird pecking at the back of a Democratic donkey with U.S. flag colors
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate.

The extremely online partisans of Twitter are convinced that Elon Musk is putting a big thumb on the U.S. electoral scale.

On one side, Democrats, Never Trump Republicans, and various other fretters about the health of democracy are pleading with their followers to stick around the platform that the Tesla CEO just bought, at least through the midterms. The thesis seems to be that if they don’t man the social media ramparts, they’ll “cede” an important organizing tool to the right, mis- and disinformation will flood the website unchecked, and the Democrats’ messaging reach will shrink.

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Meanwhile, users on the right also think that Musk’s Twitter purchase is a midterms gift. The takeover means Twitter’s alleged “election interference for Democrats will end,” goes one representative tweet, citing the network’s suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story in the waning days of the 2020 campaign. (The platform had initially blocked users from sharing an article in the New York Post about the laptop out of concern that it violated Twitter policies against use of hacked materials; the company later softened its response.) Since last week, conservatives have also claimed that #resistance accounts have seen an engagement drop. “Twitter has turned off the Democrats bot machine” and robbed Dems of the “fake engagement,” wrote former GOP congressional candidate Vic DeGrammont. “For so long, social media companies have caved to the Left’s demands, and Elon Musk is putting an end to that,” tweeted Ben Shapiro, claiming that the new Twitter era symbolizes “an inflection point in history.”

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Setting aside what happens to Twitter in the long run, are any of these people on to something? Undeniably, the past week has been a chaotic one, and many left-leaning users have made noise about quitting Twitter. Meanwhile, users on the right—not to mention trolls and users with extreme views—have been having a field day. It’s clear we are, indeed, at an inflection point. What’s less clear is that it could have severe political ramifications already.

It’s reasonable to be concerned about the potential for immediate fallout from Twitter’s transition. After going full Apprentice on key company executives and restricting employees’ access to content moderation programs, Musk went through with plans to ax a large chunk of Twitter’s staff on Friday. Per the affected workers’ own tweets, this has so far included those working on algorithm transparency, content moderation, community management, human resources, and senior engineering roles, among others. [Update, Nov. 6, 2022, at 11:38 a.m.: Twitter’s head of safety and integrity tweeted Friday, “While we said goodbye to incredibly talented friends and colleagues yesterday, our core moderation capabilities remain in place. … with our front-line moderation staff experiencing the least impact.”] All that, right as Musk directed the company to cut its infrastructure costs by at least $1 billion, as Reuters reported, and to present a plan for doing so by Nov. 7—the day before the midterms. Sources told Reuters that the infrastructure rollback “could put the Twitter website and app at risk of going down during critical events when users are rushing to Twitter to consume and share information, such as during moments of crisis or major political events.” Coupled with the hasty rollout of Twitter’s new verification program, set to kick off early next week, it’s fair to worry that Twitter’s ability to weather a crisis will be a significantly diminished site by Election Day—with experienced workers gone, overall technical capacity reduced, resources for combating misinformation lacking, and a stage set for chaotic actors to wreak havoc. [Update, Nov. 6, 2022, at 2:29 p.m.: The New York Times reported Sunday that Twitter will delay launching the paid verification system until the day after the midterms, because “many Twitter users and employees raised concerns that the new pay-for-play badges could cause confusion ahead of Tuesday’s elections.”]

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There’s also the matter of Musk’s own ideological journey. Once a bipartisan donor and voter who protested the Trump administration’s stance on climate change, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO has shed whatever liberal cred he once had. In moving Tesla’s headquarters from California to Texas late last year, he played into the conservative dream of making the Lone Star State a low-tax, low-regulation magnet to attract businesses away from liberal California. The Twitter takeover would seem to have erased whatever warm feelings remained for Musk on the left. His initial bid for the platform was encouraged by several conservative power players, and back in May, he tweeted that Democrats “have become the party of division & hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican.” More recently, he’s made clear his worrying intention to “review” Twitter’s anti–trans harassment policies, while bringing figures like longtime pal David Sacks, a prominent tech-industry right-winger, into his Twitter war room as he transforms the company.

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Musk’s most public actions so far would appear to indicate just whom he’s most sympathetic to. He took credit for the White House account’s deletion of a tweet (it had been fact-checked by Twitter users through a feature introduced before Musk’s purchase) and replied to Hillary Clinton with a bogus story claiming that Nancy Pelosi’s husband had been attacked by a gay former lover. (He later deleted his tweet promoting that conspiracy theory.) One Trump ally called on Twitter’s new owner to restore the allegedly suspended account of the Oath Keeper member running for Arizona secretary of state, writing that “this shouldn’t happen the week before an election!” Musk personally responded that he was “looking into it,” and the candidate later thanked him for “stopping the commie who suspended me a week before the election.” It’s still unclear whether or why that account was suspended, what rules its owner may have violated, what Musk specifically did on his behalf, or who this “commie” was.

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At the same time, Musk does seem to be interested in appearing independent. Upon taking the helm, he tweeted out an open letter to Twitter advertisers promising to make the network “warm and welcoming” as opposed to a “free-for-all hellscape” where “anything can be said with no consequences.” On Wednesday, Musk held a Zoom meeting with concerned civil rights groups, in which he stated he would not reinstate banned accounts until a clear process is outlined, promised that the employees who’d been restricted from content moderation control would regain their access, and pledged to “enforce [Twitter’s] election integrity policies”—the latter two points likely alluding to the upcoming midterms.

“He seems to have some concrete ideals for Twitter in his reign,” Dam Hee Kim, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona, wrote to me in an email. “These can be ambitious visions and very challenging tasks, and it is unclear if he can acquire the necessary expertise and resources to achieve them in the near future—especially with midterms coming up.”

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Online libs probably won’t be assuaged by then. Back in April, after Musk first announced the Twitter purchase, he set off an earthquake for liberal and conservative follower counts. For example, after April 25, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gained nearly 100,000 followers from new users—they weren’t bots, either—while Barack Obama lost up to 300,000. (Notably, that was also the first moment #resistance-aligned accounts proposed leaving Twitter, leading others to urge them to “wait AT LEAST until after the mid-terms.”) Right after the deal closed, a string of Hollywood celebrities bid farewell to the platform while other liberal commentators reported their “Twitter followers steadily trickling downward.” Trump-loyal Reps. Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene each gained about 40,000 new followers in the hours following Musk’s official takeover; some conservatives saw their engagement spikes as proof they were finally “out of Twitter Prison.”

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It’s really not clear yet what these fluctuations are about. What’s known is that with this user and engagement influx came a flurry of hateful rhetoric on the platform: racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia. Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, tweeted that this hate-speech surge came from a “small number of accounts” that were almost entirely “inauthentic,” a message Musk amplified in response to criticism from LeBron James. (It’s worth noting Roth also defended Musk’s move to suspend some employees’ content-moderation access as the consequence of a “corporate transition,” which wasn’t too clarifying.) In reality, the Washington Post reported, much of it came either from bigoted users who felt emboldened by Musk’s professed hands-off approach or new accounts from users of pro-Trump social networks that organized troll campaigns on Twitter.

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People know what they’re expecting from a Musk-overseen Twitter, in multiple directions. And they’re acting quickly on that perception, which could signal a cultural shift within the site. “The vast majority of tweets is sent by people who would identify as very, very liberal,” said Karsten Müller, a National University of Singapore professor who recently co-authored a working paper on how social media affects U.S. elections. “So what I would be watching is the political leaning of tweets overall.” Notably, the overall algorithm has been found to lean in favor of promoting and amplifying tweets from right-leaning accounts.

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What does any of this mean for the 2022 election—which, in some states, began long before Musk became “Chief Twit”? It’s undoubtedly true that users ready to make Twitter a hate-speech paradise could spread “false information about election logistics” that can have “a suppressive effect on the vote,” as a former Twitter product director told ABC News. Emilio Ferrara, a University of Southern California professor and trial expert for the Musk v. Twitter proceedings, told me “it’s quite possible that any significant shift in the population distribution [of Twitter’s user base] could lead to a change in the prevalence of misinformation,” especially considering that “right-wing users are more susceptible” to such influence. Karsten Müller added that “there is definitely evidence that social media can have very sudden effects,” such as how “Trump’s tweets had a detectable impact on anti-minority sentiments within days.”

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Still, “whether these kinds of effects are large enough to affect voting in the short term is less clear,” wrote Müller. “For the elections to be affected, I think it would take a much more fundamental shift in Twitter’s algorithms and user base.” Both he and Ferrara, in their respective research, found social media’s overall impact on the 2018 midterms cycle to be negligible.

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It’s possible Twitter’s specific operations for the 2022 midterms will resemble the moderation and enforcement plans it had set up pre-Musk (and which had their own serious issues and oversights). Following the layoffs, certainly, there may be less staff on hand to execute them. Still, a former Facebook public policy director mentioned to Politico that “it’s not that easy to turn off some of the algorithms that are set to proactively detect and remove misinformation and hate speech.” Twitter’s Yoel Roth has written that his teams are “staying vigilant against attempts to manipulate conversations about the 2022 US midterms.” It’s probably fanciful to assume that Twitter, which is smaller than other major social networks, could affect voting. But it could be where the next conspiracy theories that animate the right (or, for that matter, the left) gain currency, especially with diminished internal oversight.

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In the meantime, though, we should perhaps pay attention to the right-wing outlets that are showing signs of visible election influence. Arizonan users of Donald Trump’s Truth Social platform—which has been endorsed by the state’s GOP governor nominee, Kari Lake—have been monitoring ballot drop boxes in their precincts to watch out for (nonexistent) attempts at voter fraud, NBC News reported. The GOP’s “Christian nationalist” nominee for Pennsylvania governor was found to have a relationship with the Nazi-saturated social outlet Gab. The Atlantic notes that the “free speech”–promoting video app Rumble has gained tens of millions of users since the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. An observer of extremist groups told my colleague Aymann Ismail that there’s a risk of paramilitaries, usually quick to mobilize in response to online rumors, acting on social media incitements to threaten voters or election workers.

No matter what happens in the near term, it’s clear major political threats may be brewing in the places where Twitter liberals would never go.

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