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Musk’s partisan tweets question Twitter’s neutrality

On Monday, Elon Musk used his Twitter megaphone to appeal to “independently minded voters,” urging them to vote Republican on Tuesday. US midterm elections and to intervene in the country’s political debates, which tech executives have largely tried to stay out of — lest their platforms be seen as favoring one side over another.

musk, which bought Twitter for $44 billion, has expressed political views on and off the platform in the past. But the outright endorsement of one party over another now that it owns it calls into question Twitter’s ability to remain neutral under rule of the richest man in the world.

“Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, so I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the presidency is democratic,” Musk tweeted.

It’s one thing for the CEO of Wendy’s or Chick-fil-A to endorse a political party, said Jennifer Stromer-Galey, a Syracuse University professor who studies social media and politics. It is quite another matter, however, for the owner of one of the most in the world high-profile information ecosystems for this.

“These social media platforms are not just companies. This is not just a business. This is also our digital public sphere. This is our town square,” said Stromer-Galey. “And there is a sense that the public sphere is increasingly being privatized and owned by these companies — and when the leaders of these companies put their finger on the scale — it feels like it’s potentially distorting our democracy in a harmful way.”

Musk’s comments come as he seeks to overhaul the company and amid widespread concern that recent mass layoffs at the social media platform could leave the company unable to combat hate speech, misinformation that could affect voter safety and actors seeking question the legitimate winners of the elections. While Musk has vowed not to let Twitter become a “free-for-all hellscape,” advertisers left the platform and Musk himself has an increase in misinformation.

It’s no secret that when it comes to tech workers and CEOs, the political mix tends to lean left, with a good amount of Silicon Valley libertarianism thrown in for good measure. For example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has donated to candidates on both sides of the political spectrum, but in recent years he has leaned more toward Democrats. Publicly, he shied away from pledging allegiance to either side.

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 are regularly criticized—mostly by conservatives but also by liberals—for that they favor one side over the other.

“Now you can say, look, Rupert Murdoch owns Fox News, and it’s his voice that’s amplified,” said Charles Anthony Smith, a professor of political science and law at the University of California, Irvine. “But the difference is that it’s filtered through a lot of different writers and on-air personalities and all that stuff. So it’s not exactly Rupert Murdoch. Maybe people agree with him on something, but it’s filtered through other voices. This is pure direct contact. So it’s a boost that’s second to none.”

Musk’s tweets could also cause problems in world politics outside of the US election. On Sunday, the billionaire said he was willing to study overturning decisions to block some accounts of Brazilian right-wing lawmakers. The National Electoral Court last week ordered their suspension; all are supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who narrowly lost re-election on October 30, and most have claimed the election was rigged.

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 now more dictatorial than our own courts!” Figueredo wrote.

Musk replied, “I’ll deal with it.”

The suspended accounts include Nicolas Ferreira, who received more votes in the October race than any other candidate for a lower house seat. According to the electoral body’s orders, Ferreira’s account and that of most others were blocked for sharing a live video from an Argentinian digital influencer who questioned the reliability of Brazil’s electronic voting system. The video was mostly shared by allies of Bolsonaro, who himself has often claimed that the system is susceptible to fraud, without providing any evidence.

Twitter politiciansstarting Monday, prohibits “manipulating or interfering with elections or other civil processes.”

In a tweet just two days after he agreed to buy Twitter in April, Musk said that “for Twitter to earn the public’s trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means that it cares equally about the far right and the far left.”

And to attract as many advertisers and users as possible, Big Tech has tried to go that route, with varying degrees of success. It has been successful for many years. But the 2016 US presidential election changed the online discourse, contributing to the country’s political polarization.

In early 2016, a tech blog quoted an anonymous former Facebook contractor as saying that the site degraded news that conservatives are interested in liberal issues like the hashtag “BlackLivesMatter” and artificially pushed them. The blog did not name the man and provided no evidence for his claim.

But in the explosive political climate that preceded the election of former President Donald Trump, the claim quickly revived. There was a lot of media coverage, as well as inquiries from GOP lawmakers, then, later, congressional hearings by case. Ever since social media companies began cracking down on far-right accounts and conspiracy theories like QAnon, some conservatives have begun to see it as evidence of the platforms’ bias.

Musk himself is at least heeding such claims, and he has repeatedly engaged with right-wing and far-right figures who would like Twitter’s policies on misinformation and hate to be relaxed.

Evidence suggests that these voices are already being heard. In the October study, for example, researchers from University of Pennsylvania found that “Twitter gives more visibility to politically conservative news than it does to a contented liberal bias.”

Musk’s tweet garnered hundreds of thousands of likes and many retweets on Monday, a day before the final vote in thousands of races across the country. But in replies and retweets, many well-known (and not so) Twitter personalities have been critical of the Tesla CEO — often mocking him. For Smith, it’s a sign that Musk may not be the political kingmaker billionaire that some of his peers, such as venture capitalist Peter Thiel, aspire to be.

“I wonder if we have a new breed of billionaires who want to decide what happens and get credit for deciding what happens,” Smith said. “So it’s more like an oligarchic approach than old-school billionaires who throw around a lot of money but then don’t want anyone to know their names.”


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