Will Elon Musk Make Twitter a Wild West of Misinformation?
In an unregulated flea market of opinion, truth doesn't rise to the top.
Posted December 1, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Since Elon Musk took control of Twitter, he has reversed policies designed to curb misinformation on the social media platform.
- Musk's new policies will thwart his mission for Twitter to become "the most accurate source of information about the world."
- On social media platforms, managing misinformation and hate speech requires regulation through content moderation.
In The Sneetches, one of my favorite children’s books by Dr. Seuss, the eponymous protagonists are yellow, bird-like creatures, some of whom have stars on their bellies while others do not.
The ones with the stars lord this status symbol over their “plain-bellied” counterparts, don’t allow them to attend their social gatherings, and leave them out in the cold—that is, until a kind of traveling salesman by the name of Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town with a contraption that can put stars on the bellies of the plain-bellied Sneetches. Soon enough, everyone has stars, such that the enraged Sneetches who had them in the first place turn the tables, removing their stars in McBean’s machine and declaring that now “the best kind of Sneetches” are those that don’t have them. The Sneetches go back and forth like this, paying McBean to change them from star-bellied Sneetches to plain-bellied Sneetches and vice-versa until the situation becomes so muddled that everyone drops their star pretensions and decides to come together as an egalitarian community.
Watching Elon Musk since he took ownership of Twitter in late October, it's hard not to imagine that he fancies himself the Sylvester McMonkey McBean of social media who aims to level the playing field of Twitter’s “blue check” verification system just like McBean did with the Sneetches’ stars.
By way of background for those not familiar with the Twittersphere, where bots and troll accounts are plentiful and users aren’t always who they appear to be, blue checks were originally rolled out to clarify whether companies, news outlets, government officials, celebrities, and other public figures were who they said they were. Then, during COVID-19, after Twitter pledged to crack down on harmful misinformation related to the pandemic, blue checks were also awarded to authoritative experts who were helping to disseminate accurate health care information in the midst of the pandemic. Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election and in the wake of the Capitol insurrection of January 2021, accounts spreading hate speech and potentially harmful misinformation—notably including President Donald Trump’s—were suspended along with scores of other accounts that were promoting QAnon and its conspiracy theories.
Suffice it to say that much has changed at Twitter in the short time since Musk bought the social media platform for $44 million and took its reins in October 2022. In an apparent attempt to generate revenue and in response to advertisers leaving Twitter in droves, Musk began to talk about charging users for their blue checks and soon implemented a new policy that allowed anybody to purchase one for $8/month. Beyond the potential profit margins of the plan, he justified the new policy by tweeting that “Widespread verification will democratize journalism & empower the voices of the people.”
Reinstating Suspended Accounts
In another sweeping gesture in the name of free speech, Musk recently decided to reinstate many of the previously suspended accounts including Trump’s, using the Latin phrase “vox populi, vox dei” to declare that it was the will of the people. Then, this past week, purge lists started to circulate on Twitter demanding the targeted removal of left-leaning accounts including several mainstream news outlets.
Although Musk has claimed to have traditionally voted for Democrats, earlier this year when he first started talking about acquiring the company, he commented that Twitter had become biased against conservatives and he later endorsed Republicans during the November midterms. No surprise then that many conservative-leaning users who felt that the blue checks and account suspensions were blatant examples of how liberals control media and social media have been delighted by there being a new sheriff in town in the Wild West of Twitter over the past month. Meanwhile, many left-leaning users—including a sizeable number of academic experts—have now left Twitter in favor of sites like Mastodon and Post not unlike how conservative users had previously fled the site for Parler and Truth Social back in 2020 and 2021.
With Twitter so radically transformed in such a short time, we should now ask ourselves whether Twitter—and the rest of the world—is better off with the change. The answer depends on who we are and just what it is we’re hoping to get out of Twitter. If we want it to be a “free market of opinion” where everyone has an equal voice above all else, then, mission accomplished. But if what we want from Twitter is what Musk has claimed to be its mission—"to become by far the most accurate source of information about the world,” then it could rightly be argued that he is tearing apart the best parts about the social media platform.
A "Flea Market of Opinion"
Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: Musk can’t have it both ways. He can’t democratize Twitter voices by removing the blue checks from sources of informational authority while still expecting the site to be the most accurate source of information in the world. On the contrary, deregulation in the name of free speech quickly turns a “free market of opinion” into a “flea market of opinion” where it isn’t the silent minority that’s handed the microphone, but the most outrageous, salacious, and incendiary voices that are most likely to be heard. In that kind of environment, it isn’t accurate information or truth that rises above the fray. And if that's the case, who needs Twitter anyway when we already have the likes of 4Chan and 8kun?
Indeed, early returns have suggested that hate speech—including use of the N-word, slurs against gay men, and antisemitic tweets—have risen sharply on Twitter since Musk took over.1 Researchers at Tufts University who’d “tracked narratives about civil war, election fraud, citizen policing of voting, and allegations of pedophilia and grooming on Twitter” earlier this year found that “Post-Musk takeover, the quality of the conversation has decayed as more extremists and misinformation peddlers tested the platform’s boundaries.”2 And just this week, public health officials and doctors have called Musk's decision to end Twitter’s previous ban on COVID misinformation, a “huge step backwards.”3
Here's what Musk and others talking about free speech don’t seem to get or choose to ignore: Free speech in a democracy has never been about “anything goes.” Giving people an equal voice to share their opinions doesn’t mean that anyone is free to yell fire in a crowded theater or show up at your workplace making libelous claims about you. On a social media platform, regulation through content moderation is needed to rein that in.
Here's another thing that Musk doesn’t get: Blue checks on Twitter aren’t the same as stars on Sneetches. They’re a helpful way to protect identity and verify experts whose voices deserve to be amplified above the din of misinformation within the flea market of opinion. When Musk talks about “democratizing journalism,” he’s ignoring the fact that journalists have degrees in journalism and engage in “good old-fashioned reporting” (to paraphrase longtime newsman Ted Koppel) as opposed to merely tweeting out 280-character op-ed screeds.
Although discounting expertise is a core feature of the kind of populism that has swept over the world in recent years, expertise shouldn’t be bought or sold; it should be earned. In 2017, New Yorker cartoonist Will McPhail made this point clear when he published a cartoon featuring a man on a plane standing up and raising his hand to ask his fellow passengers, “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” Several passengers are raising their hands along with him.
But, let's be honest. Is that really who we want flying the plane? Or performing surgery in an operating room? Or repairing faulty wiring in your house?
As we near the end of 2022, many would argue that Twitter is much like a jumbo jet that’s now in a tailspin. Musk is the man who thinks he’s qualified to be the pilot. And as Twitter crashes and burns, many are cheering him on.
1. Frenka S, Conger K. Hate speech’s rise on Twitter Is unprecedented, researchers find. The New York TImes; December 2, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/02/technology/twitter-hate-speech.html
2. Hsu T. Resistance to misinformation is weakening on Twitter, a report found. The New York Times; November 6, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/07/business/media/twitter-misinformation-report.html
3. Lorenz T. Twitter ends its ban on covid misinformation. The Washington Post; November 29, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/11/29/twitter-covid-misinformation-policy/