How Elon Musk’s Twitter Could Impact the Midterm ElectionsEdward Perez / Nov 2, 2022
Edward “Eddie” Perez is a member of the Board of Directors of the OSET Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit election technology research, development, and education organization, and the former Director of Product Management for Societal Health at Twitter, Inc.
Might Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter impact next week’s U.S. midterm elections? Based on the impulsive and unprofessional behavior we’ve seen over just the past week, the answer is “yes.” Right now, I see at least five ways that Musk can negatively impact the midterms if he continues to make poor decisions.
1: Supercharging polarization and vitriol:
Musk, a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist, has said Twitter’s content moderation policies are too restrictive and pledged to loosen the rules. As soon as he closed the deal to acquire the company last week, there was evidence that some users immediately wanted to test the limits by increasing the supply of hateful speech and divisive ideas. Within hours of Musk taking the reins, the platform was inundated with vulgar epithets and memes, including a surge of racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, homophobic, and transphobic hate speech. Bloomberg reported a 1,700 percent spike in the use of the N-word, which at its peak appeared 215 times every five minutes.
Unless Twitter remains vigilant and polices this hateful rhetoric, it will spread farther and wider. And it won’t end well.
2: Political violence:
First, rhetoric matters. When threats and violent language toward political and election officials are normalized or minimized, they not only increase the risk of real off-platform harm, but also create new cycles of lies and disinformation. The attack on Paul Pelosi, the 82-year-old husband of the Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), degenerated into conspiracies and cruel mockery on and off Twitter from elected officials, Donald Trump, Jr., and the “Chief Twit” himself.
Second, election workers have resigned in droves due to the unprecedented level of threats and harassment directed at them. Law enforcement agencies are warning of disinformation-fueled violence if losing candidates refuse to concede and rile up their supporters online. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned in June that “calls for violence by domestic violent extremists” against election workers, candidates and democratic institutions will likely rise. And recently, John Cohen, the former intelligence chief for DHS, told Newsweek that the threat environment is “the most dangerous I've ever seen in my entire 38-year career,” and that it’s “a threat that could potentially impact the stability of the nation."
Without proper moderation, Twitter could potentially throw gasoline on this fire by allowing disinformation to flourish, increasing the potential for violence.
3- Spreading disinformation from his own account:
Musk tweeting lurid conspiracies about the attack on Paul Pelosi was deeply disturbing, and if he makes similar tweets, his lack of impulse control and penchant for trolling could result in more harm in the weeks to come. With 113 million followers, many of whom are rabid fans who amplify his every thought, his words cascade across the entire platform and drive news cycles just as former President Donald Trump did before his account was permanently suspended (or, so it seemed at the time) after the events of January 6, 2021. It’s worth remembering that a single tweet is widely considered to have been a catalyst for the events that took place that day. Musk has similar power at his fingertips.
4- Harming voting processes:
A critical part of Twitter's civic integrity policy is prohibiting the spread of false information that can impact voter participation in the election -- e.g., voting times, locations, how to vote, etc. But Musk is slashing 25 percent of Twitter’s staff ahead of the election, which means the company could be short-handed in enforcing policies. That development is egregious enough, but now reports have surfaced that Musk has already frozen some employee access to internal tools used for content moderation and other policy enforcement, curbing Twitter’s Trust and Safety organization’s ability to clamp down on election misinformation or deal with foreign influence operations.
5- Post-election disinformation:
A critical test of Musk's stated desire to "help humanity" (his words) is whether Twitter reinstates some of its most notorious purveyors of election lies and allows disinformation to spread during the post-election counting period -- a new disinformation cycle that I have called "manufactured chaos.” Given the rapid growth in the scale of disinformation since 2020, it’s reasonable to doubt whether they can keep up.
Finally, in addition to the question "Can Musk's Twitter impact midterm elections," some journalists have also asked if there are any “positives” to Musk's Twitter takeover? Is there an upside?"
I can only answer based on my experience, both as an expert on elections and as a former Twitter employee. In a word… No.