The news that Elon Musk—the world’s richest man—had successfully purchased Twitter for $44 billion on Monday has some social justice and climate activists worried that misleading and false information could spread more easily on the platform under his leadership. The owner of Tesla has criticized the social media giant, saying Twitter’s policies to moderate hate speech and disinformation on its site go too far and encroach on free speech.
“Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy,” Musk wrote in a tweet last month. “What should be done?”
Now, as Musk takes over one of the world’s oldest and most influential social media companies, his public statements in support of a more absolutist idea of free speech are irking some progressive lawmakers and activists, whom for years have complained that conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns are running rampant online and are the true threat to American democracy by making it harder to debate issues using the same sets of facts.
“Mr. Musk: free speech is wonderful, hate speech is unacceptable. Disinformation, misinformation and hate speech have NO PLACE on Twitter,” the NAACP, one of the nation’s leading civil rights groups, wrote in a statement Monday. “Do not allow Twitter to become a petri dish for hate speech, or falsehoods that subvert our democracy. Protecting our democracy is of utmost importance, especially as the midterm elections approach.”
Social media companies have come under increasing scrutiny for their role in the spread of false or misleading information online, particularly around hot button topics like Covid-19, election fraud and the scientific consensus about human-caused climate change. And some research points to the problem getting worse: One analysis found that Americans consumed twice as much news from “unreliable” sources in 2020 as they did in 2019, for example. Another study found that false information spreads faster online than accurate information, with falsehoods being 70 percent more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth.
Many social media platforms have promised to crack down on both misinformation and disinformation amid growing public pressure to address them. Misinformation refers to the spread of inaccurate knowledge unknowingly, while disinformation refers to the explicit spread of lies. Just last Friday, Twitter announced it would no longer allow advertisers on its site who deny the scientific consensus on climate change, following a similar move by Google back in October.
That announcement was praised by environmental advocates, who say online disinformation campaigns paid for largely by the fossil fuel industry have undermined the ability for U.S. lawmakers to pass meaningful legislation to address global warming. That includes President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, which would have dedicated some $550 billion to climate-related efforts and has gained no support from Republicans and faces opposition from some Democrats from oil and gas producing states.
Michael Khoo, the climate disinformation coalition co-chair at Friends of the Earth, an international environmental advocacy group, said developing strong guardrails against misinformation is key to advancing good climate policy, and the lack of those guardrails has already resulted in real-life consequences.
The false claims that spread after the deadly winter storm that hit Texas in February 2021 is a good example of what can go wrong, Khoo said. A photo of a helicopter de-icing a frozen wind turbine was widely shared online, with social media users saying it showed how renewable energy was the reason the state’s power grid failed, resulting in about 250 deaths and massive blackouts.
Except the photo was taken in Sweden in 2016, not Texas in 2021, Khoo said.
“That didn’t stop it from becoming a dominant narrative, especially within the GOP, and we saw a single post from a small corner of the internet expand to a larger audience and then make its way to Tucker Carlson,” he said. “Then within four days, it became a talking point for the governor of Texas that renewable power was to blame. That kind of disinformation has real world implications when we’re trying to create new energy policies.”
It’s unclear if Musk will reverse or water down Twitter’s current policies aimed at curbing the spread of hate speech and false information, and there are some ways he might actually help to reduce its flow online. Musk has signaled that he plans to reduce the number of bots on Twitter, which research has shown contribute significantly to the spread of inaccurate information regarding climate change.
Khoo also said that he doesn’t expect Musk to make Twitter a truly unregulated platform in terms of free speech and misinformation—since websites that don’t regulate speech also tend to have toxic environments.
“At the end of the day, social media companies are a business,” he said, “and advertisers have clearly shown they don’t want to spend money on a toxic platform.”
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