Elon Musk used his Twitter megaphone on Monday to appeal to “independent-minded voters,” urging them to vote Republican in Tuesday’s US midterm elections and entering the country’s political debate, from which executives at tech companies have largely tried to stay out – lest their platforms be seen as favoring one side over the other.
Musk, who bought Twitter for $44 billion, has expressed political views on and off the platform in the past. But a direct endorsement of one party over another, now that he owns it, raises questions about Twitter’s ability to remain neutral under the rule of the world’s richest man.
“Shared power curbs the worst excesses of either party, so I recommend voting for a Republican Congress as the presidency is Democratic,” Musk tweeted.
It’s one thing for the CEO of Wendy’s or Chick-fil-A to support a political party, said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a Syracuse University professor who studies social media and politics. However, for the owner of one of the most well-known information ecosystems in the world, doing so is an entirely different matter.
“These social media platforms are not just businesses. It’s not just a business. It is also our digital public. That’s our marketplace,” said Stromer-Galley. “And it feels like the public is becoming increasingly privatized and owned by these companies – and when the leaders of these companies put their finger on the scales – it feels like this is potentially distorting our democracy in a harmful way.”
Musk’s comments come as he seeks to transform the company, and amid widespread concerns that the company may be unable to deal with hate speech, misinformation that threatens the safety of people, due to recent mass layoffs on the social media platform could affect voters, and actors who could raise doubts, bypass the rightful election winners. Although Musk has vowed not to turn Twitter into a “free hellscape,” advertisers have exited the platform and Musk himself has reinforced misinformation.
It’s no secret that when it comes to tech workers and executives, the political mix tends to be left-leaning, with a good dose of Silicon Valley libertarianism. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has donated to candidates on both sides of the political spectrum, but in recent years he’s leaned more towards Democrats. He has publicly avoided swearing allegiance to either party.
But in their platform policies and content moderation, tech companies like Facebook (now Meta), Google, and even Twitter have gone to great lengths to appear politically neutral, even as they routinely face criticism — mostly from conservatives, but liberals as well — for being a prefer side over the other.
“Well, you could say, look, Rupert Murdoch owns Fox News, and that’s his amplified voice,” said Charles Anthony Smith, professor of political science and law at the University of California, Irvine. “But the difference is that it’s filtered through a variety of different writers and on-air personalities and all that other stuff. So it’s not really Rupert Murdoch. It may be people who agree with him on things, but it’s filtered through other voices. This is unadulterated direct contact. So it’s a reinforcement that’s second to none.”
Musk’s tweets could also cause unrest in world politics outside of the US elections. On Sunday, the billionaire signaled his willingness to reverse decisions that blocked some accounts of right-wing Brazilian lawmakers. The nation’s electoral court last week ordered her suspension; all are supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who narrowly lost his re-election bid on October 30, and most had made allegations of voter fraud.
Paulo Figueiredo Filho, a political analyst who often defends Bolsonaro on social media and is also the grandson of the last president of the military dictatorship, tweeted that Twitter had become a strict and spontaneous censor.
“Your moderators are currently more dictatorial than our own courts!” Figueiredo wrote.
Musk replied, “I’ll look into that.”
The suspended accounts include that of Nikolas Ferreira, who received more votes than any other candidate for a seat in the House of Commons in the October race. In accordance with orders from the electoral authority, Ferreira’s account and most others were suspended for sharing live video from an Argentine digital influencer questioning the reliability of Brazil’s electronic voting system. The video was largely shared by allies of Bolsonaro, who himself has often claimed the system is vulnerable to fraud without providing any evidence.
twitters guidelinesprohibit from Monday “the manipulation or interference in elections or other civic processes”.
In a tweet just two days after agreeing to buy Twitter in April, Musk said that “in order to earn public trust, Twitter must be politically neutral, which effectively means serving the far right and the far left alike.” upset”.
And in order to attract the largest possible number of advertisers and users, Big Tech has tried to go down this route, with varying degrees of success. For years it was successful. But the 2016 US presidential election changed the online discourse and fueled the country’s increasing political polarization.
In early 2016, a tech blog quoted an anonymous former Facebook contractor as saying the site downplayed news that conservatives are interested in liberal issues like the hashtag “BlackLivesMatter” and artificially fuel them. The blog did not name the person and no evidence was provided to support their claim.
But in the explosive political climate that preceded the election of former President Donald Trump, the claim quickly took on a life of its own. There was much media coverage, as well as requests from GOP lawmakers and later congressional hearings to this topic. In the years since, as social media companies began cracking down on far-right accounts and conspiracy theories like QAnon, some conservatives have seen it as evidence of the platforms’ bias.
Musk himself at least listens to such claims and has repeatedly engaged with representatives of the right and the extreme right who want a relaxation of Twitter’s misinformation and hate speech policies.
Evidence suggests these voices are already being heard. For example, in an October study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that “Twitter gives more visibility to politically conservative news than a liberal leaning will settle for.”
Musk’s tweet received hundreds of thousands of likes and many retweets on Monday, a day before final votes are cast at thousands of races across the country. But in replies and retweets, many prominent (and not-so-celebrity) Twitter personalities have criticized the Tesla CEO — often poking fun at him. For Smith, that’s a sign that Musk may not be quite the billionaire political kingmaker that some of his peers, like venture capitalist Peter Thiel, are aspiring to.
“I wonder if we’re creating a new breed of billionaire, the ones who want to make decisions about what happens and get credit for making decisions about what happens,” Smith said. “So that’s more of an oligarchy approach than the old-school billionaires who dropped a lot of money but then didn’t want anyone to know their names.”
Associated Press writer Carla Bridi contributed to this story from Brasilia, Brazil.