Or Musk, who says he’s a ‘free speech absolutist’, could end up scaring off users – and inviting a wave of litigation – if he takes down the platform’s efforts to weed out misinformation, racism and other vitriols.
“If they say something that’s illegal or just destructive to the world, then maybe there should be a timeout, a temporary suspension. … But I think permabans fundamentally undermine trust in Twitter,” Musk has said in the past.
Beloved by politicians and journalists, though perhaps less read outside of the device, the platform appears to be heading for major changes that could shape the upcoming midterm elections – and the 2024 presidential elections – especially if Trump is allowed to return.
Exactly what this means for Washington’s political elite and journalists who rely on the platform for breaking news and political discourse remains up in the air, but here are some potential pitfalls of a Musk-led Twitter:
A Trump Comeback: Good for Democrats?
With less than five weeks to go until the 2022 midterm elections, a Trump comeback could serve as a distraction for the GOP and a key message for Democrats.
“The risk is that it helps the Democrats succeed in presenting this as an election on Donald Trump, which they would like to do, even if he is not on the ballot, he is not close to a ballot,” Eric Wilson, managing partner of Startup Caucus, a Republican campaign technology investment fund, said in an interview.
And looking ahead, a Trump return could have a “huge impact on the 2024 election, especially if Donald Trump is a presidential candidate,” said Andrew Bleeker, president of progressive political public affairs firm Bully Pulpit. Interactive, in an interview. “You can think of that 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 dread — and expect — under the Trump administration.
Misinformation 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 major social media platforms, said Mark Jablonowski, president of DSPolitical, an ad tech firm supporting Democratic candidates.
“Pulling this risks turning Twitter into a 4chan or an 8chan, which we really don’t want to see,” he said.
“If Trump is able to throw his support behind the candidates with a really loud megaphone that may not be factually accurate, sharing misinformation and misinformation, that can absolutely hijack the Democrats’ election,” Jablonowski said.
Also, 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-CEO of Free Press, a nonpartisan media advocacy organization, said in an interview. “I think we will see prolific conspiracy theories, and white supremacists coming back to the platform and many more people who hold power and are willing to use the platforms to spread hate and harassment campaigns.”
Tech companies, including Twitter, have invested heavily in trying to establish nuanced rules to keep these types of offensive speech off the platform, Bleeker said. But, he adds, Musk is going to have to move quickly to recoup his investment, and he’s going to lean towards subscriptions and cost-cutting measures to get there.
“The fear is that many of the important safety mechanisms are the first thing to do in the name of free speech,” he said.
An outburst 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.
She noted that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases that term that threaten the coveted liability shield of tech companies. And the Digital Services Act regulation in the EU aims to crack down on illegal and harmful content on the platforms. “The general legal environment in which Twitter operates is becoming less and less lenient toward unaddressed abuses,” Llanso said.
An exodus of politicians? To be determined
In a world where Twitter has no or very little content moderation, will all of its politicians jump ship? It’s a possibility.
“Politicians go where the voters are. And as long as the people who are upstream of the shaping of political narratives – namely journalists, talking heads, pundits, political operatives – are active on Twitter, expect politicians to be there,” Wilson said.
“If it becomes an unpleasant place for these people, then they will probably leave and go somewhere else,” he said.
However, political advisers on both sides of the aisle remain skeptical that Musk will blow up the platform after paying $44 billion to buy it.
“To make money, you need people to be on the platform,” Wilson said. “There are stages between the current situation of Twitter and an Internet cesspool. It’s neither.
Jablonowski said: “There is always a possibility that he is able to walk a tightrope and get it right.”
Another revenue stream for Musk — and a major lure 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 put in place. in place in October 2019.
“Allowing paid media for political campaigns could in theory help campaigns amplify an anti-disinformation message on the platform,” Jablonowski said. “But it really depends because would politicians want to advertise on a platform full of hate speech and misinformation?”
But a big caveat
One key point, however, is often overlooked: Twitter has never been very popular with the average voter. And while a Musk takeover may push some politicians off the platform, it’s still not where the majority of voters are spending their time.
“Twitter is not a fundraising platform. It’s 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 primary place where you’re going to reach the vast majority of voters and really educate the vast majority of voters. Today’s Facebook and YouTube platforms really have a much greater reach for real American audiences.
Either way, the Tesla CEO’s $44 billion bid to buy Washington’s favorite social media site appears to have gotten the green light from Twitter on Tuesday…for the second time, after it tried to pull out of the deal and was eventually sued by Twitter this summer. Although the Delaware Chancery Court judge said on Wednesday that a scheduled trial was still underway – which is expected to begin on October 17.