Elon Musk’s Twitter put to the “midterms” test

Ten days have passed since Elon Musk took over Twitter and the company is already in turmoil. The billionaire laid off last Friday nearly half of the 7,500 employees of the social network to, he justified, reduce costs and “ improve business health “. A brutal decision came in the wake of the announcement of new projects for Twitter, including the very controversial new account certification system. Almighty at the head of the social network, Elon Musk seems to embroider his strategy over the water, with great declarations by tweet … He has also published more than a hundred since the acquisition.

Problem: this profound upheaval in the most influential of social networks comes at a delicate time. The US presidential midterm elections, the “midterms”, will take place on Tuesday, and will bring into play the 435 seats of the House of Representatives (which has had a Democratic majority since 2018) and 34 Senate seats (out of 100). A shift in one or both chambers to the Republican camp would have serious consequences for the last two years of Joe Biden’s presidential term, knowing that the Democratic camp is in bad shape.

The elections are therefore under tension, and specialists are warning about the risks of disinformation, with a fundamental question: even in the midst of upheaval, will Twitter be able to manage the moderation of the event? The answer could have economic consequences, since the exercise will serve as a test for advertisers, who already doubt the moderation of the social network under Musk.

Read also OPA on Twitter: “The fact that Elon Musk can obtain such power is disturbing”

Elon Musk the Republican

Elon Musk’s posture on the subject is the source of concern. His radical vision of freedom of expression, which allows you to say almost everything, raises fears of a rise in discriminatory and conspiratorial discourse on the network. The businessman demonstrated this just two days after the acquisition of Twitter by sharing an article from a conspiratorial site casting doubt on the claims of Paul Pelosi, husband of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, attacked at his home, while the serious media argued that the attacker had political motivations and that he referenced far-right articles (in particular from the QAnon conspiratorial movement).

If Elon Musk deleted his message a few hours later, he still indirectly qualified the New York Times who pointed out his error, of ” site known to publish fake news “. A statement that is not very surprising, since the billionaire has publicly approached the Republican camp, where this kind of anti-media discourse is relatively common. Since taking a stand at the head of Twitter, Elon Musk enthusiastically shares or responds to several accounts openly “ conservatives “, even if he presents himself publicly as being neither left nor right.

This political leaning came out again a few days after the Pelosi affair. The businessman distinguished himself this time by a verbal contest with the Democratic deputy (and candidate for the “midterms”) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, followed by 13.5 million subscribers. This last mocked Elon Musk’s willingness to charge $8 to certify Twitter accounts. “It’s hilarious to watch a billionaire try to sell people that free speech is actually an $8 a month subscription. “To which the principal concerned replied:” Vyour feedback is appreciated, now pay 8 dollars“” before splitting other critical tweets. The bickering extended over time, Ocasio-Cortez accusing Elon Musk the next day of being responsible for display bugs on his Twitter account, without concrete proof.

If this preference of the number 1 of Twitter for the Republican camp is worrying, it is because during the two most recent presidential campaigns, the American conservative media – the powerful Fox News in the lead – relayed many fake news against the Democratic candidates , such as the content of Hillary Clinton’s campaign emails in 2016, or the story of the documents recovered from a laptop computer of Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, in 2020. However, misinformation from the movements of the America’s far-right continues to abound, as incumbent President Donald Trump continues to deny defeat in the presidential election…

Twitter moderation in the works

Despite his slippages and public positions, Elon Musk wants to be reassuring : ” I repeat it once again: Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains unchanged “. However, the billionaire had affirmed, when filing his offer to purchase, that he was ready to restore the account of Donald Trump, suspended after the riots in the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Similarly, he had welcomed the restoration of the account of rapper Kanye West (close to Donald Trump) on the platform in early October, before the latter was immediately banned again for anti-Semitic remarks. Elon Musk, however, claimed he would not reinstate an account until a clear process was in place. [le compte de Kanye West est de nouveau actif depuis le 3 novembre, sans qu’un lien de causalité avec la prise de poste d’Elon Musk soit prouvé, ndlr]. He thus announced that he would form a moderation council in the coming months content to validate the reinstatement of an account or any change in moderation policy.

For his part, Yoel Roth, the brand new head of the Trust and Safety teams [confiance et sûreté, ndlr] of the site – after the “resignation” of the former director, also wanted to be reassuring by tweeting that ” most moderation capabilities remained in place “. The division would have lost only 5% of its workforce, which did not affect its capacity for moderation, which would have remained stable, according to him. As for the initiatives launched before the actual takeover, such as the commissioning of reports from outside researchers on the campaigns of foreign influence, they have been maintained.

However, even if Twitter should work for “midterms” as it did before being bought by Elon Musk, fears about the evolution of the moderation of the social network remain. Dissatisfied with the current moderation of the social network, the billionaire wants to deploy more widely Birdwatch, a community moderation feature on which Twitter has been working since 2021, and whose tests have just begun. Concretely, Birdwatch contributors can leave a note on a tweet to put it back into context or correct a factual error. In addition, Elon Musk had claimed when signing the takeover offer that he would make Twitter’s algorithm open source, so that it would be observable by outsiders to ensure that it would not does not favor a particular type of discourse. But so far, he has only fired the Algorithm Transparency research team.

The new certification postponed

Last project postponed, and not the least: the new method of certification of Twitter. Until now, this functionality made it possible to authenticate the identity of a public person (politician, journalist, artist, company manager, etc.) or of a company on the network. The objective: to avoid identity theft, which makes it possible to set up scams or damage the reputation of the person concerned.

But Elon Musk wants to make it a central part of his business model. Obtaining certification would now only be linked to the payment of a monthly subscription of 8 dollars per month, and would give access to privileges (highlighted tweets and replies, fewer advertisements, etc.). All without identity verification. Twitter teams, who have been working hard for ten days, deployed the feature this weekend … before removing it. Wasn’t she ready enough? Anyway, Musk indicated soon after that he would wait until the end of the midterms to launch the new system, without mentioning this failed deployment. A wise precaution, which will avoid having an additional moderation problem during the elections.