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Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter could spread misinformation

OWhile much of the online world reacted with surprise and skepticism when news of Elon Musk’s astonishing $44 billion acquisition of Twitter broke on Monday, some corners of the internet erupted in jubilation. “Today is a massive cause for celebration!” a user posted on the Telegram messaging app.

This user, a conspirator who goes by the name of BioClandestine, was suspended from Twitter in February after sparking a viral conspiracy over US funding for the development of biological weapons in Ukraine, which was later amplified by the Kremlin. All of that was about to change, he told his followers: “In the future, when massive stories like the Hunter Biden laptop and US biolabs pop up, Twitter will allow the information to flow. freely, instead of labeling these inconvenient truths “Russian disinformation”. ‘”

It remains unclear what major changes, if any, Musk will ultimately implement on Twitter. But that hasn’t stopped a wide range of far-right influencers, conspirators and popular purveyors of disinformation and extremist ideologies from celebrating the self-proclaimed ‘free speech absolutist’ takeover. as a way to get back on the platform.

Read more: What Elon Musk Really Believes

The eccentric tech billionaire is hailed as an unlikely hero by far-right groups from the Proud Boys to white nationalist activists and conspirators, many of whom have been banned from Twitter. “We (Patriots) still have a lot to sort out on Twitter,” an influencer named “Qtah” wrote on Telegram, which was picked up by QAnon character Ron Watkins. “LETS F-CKING GOOO,” posted white nationalist commentator Nick Fuentes, who was banned from Twitter last year. “We are back.”

The deal isn’t expected to close for three to six months, but Musk has made no secret of his disdain for some of Twitter’s moderation policies. He said he was considering a more passive approach to making the platform a haven for unfettered expression, only removing content if required by law. “If it’s a gray area, let the tweet exist,” Musk said in a TED Talk last week, echoing his previous statements that he thinks the company’s efforts to moderate legal but problematic content , controversial or offensive have gone too far. Republicans and conservative groups have criticized these policies for censoring their voices and views. (Twitter research shows that partisan right-wing news sources have received a bigger boost from Twitter’s algorithm than moderate or left-leaning news sources in the past.)

But former employees, analysts and experts have warned that efforts to roll back Twitter’s recent policies could lead to an increase in the misinformation, extremist content, harassment and hate speech the company has been trying to crack down on ever since. years. These stricter rules have been slowly developed over the past decade as social media companies have learned how bad actors can manipulate their platforms. In some countries, leaders have used Twitter to harass and silence critics, manipulate public opinion, and incite ethnic and religious violence. “Musk’s takeover represents a truly chaotic and uncertain time, and in those kinds of chaotic times, it’s the most organized and passionate forces that usually succeed,” says Emerson Brooking, senior researcher at Digital Forensic Research at the Atlantic Council. Laboratory. “And right now it’s the far right, right now it’s hateful voices that were previously banned from Twitter.”

After many prominent far-right influencers, white nationalists, conspirators and con artists peddling political and health misinformation were banned from Twitter in recent years, legions of their followers have vowed to leave the platform. form and decamped to alternate platforms. But Musk’s takeover appears to have convinced some of those users that they’ll be able to return to the app and reach a wider audience again.

Read more: How far-right figures and conspiracy theorists are profiting from the pandemic online

Alternative social media platforms like Gab, GETTR, Parler, and Donald Trump’s TRUTH social attract like-minded users and make it harder to grow mass audiences by engaging with their critics. (“Truth Social (terrible name) exists because Twitter censored free speech,” Musk tweeted Wednesday.) Twitter has proven particularly powerful when it comes to distorting the news ecosystem, says Alicia Wanless, director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington. “It’s very telling that there’s a group of users who are celebrating being able to come back, who are probably finding they can’t reach or grow their audience on these smaller platforms,” ​​she says. “You’ll find more like-minded people” on apps like Gab, adds Wanless, “but you’re not necessarily reaching the mainstream.”

These users recognize the influence of Twitter. “Twitter needs to be acquired and censorship stopped there to start a slow burning red pilling process,” wrote one user on a popular QAnon forum, using the term to convert people to far-right beliefs. “Think a bit… How does the trans agenda seep into every classroom so quickly?” another person wrote. “Twitter is the vehicle for narrative shaping.” Another agreed: “Well, Twitter can literally steer world events and, more importantly, the public’s perception of what world events mean.”

America’s Frontline Doctors, a right-wing political group that has built a loyal following in anti-vaccine circles by spreading health misinformation and selling access to alternative cures for Covid-19, has published several articles about the Musk deal, including one encouraging people to use the #ThankElon hashtag. “Twitter is free, and we truckers are ready to take over and prepare a massive campaign with the help of Elon Musk,” read a message on a popular Telegram account “Truckers for Freedom” which has been reported. originally launched for anti-vaccine protests and has since become a catch-all for conspiracies and misinformation about COVID-19, the election and the war in Ukraine.

Despite elation from many of these groups and warnings from experts and employees, Musk has yet to say how or if he intends to reverse Twitter’s moderation policies. But until he does, these groups have made it clear they view his deal as a victory. “Elon Musk buying Twitter,” said a right-wing Telegram account, “it’s like the digital Berlin Wall is coming down.”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen at [email protected]


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