How Musk's appeal to voters could affect the US midterm elections

AThe head of a major social media platform has never told its users who to vote for in an upcoming election. But on Monday, new Twitter owner Elon Musk did just that — urging “independently-minded voters” to vote Republican in Tuesday’s midterm elections, raising questions about how Musk’s platform could be used to influence political discourse and elections. media experts say.

“He’s a guy who now has incredible unilateral power to shape our information system and how information is shared,” Nicole Gill, executive director of the nonprofit Accountable Tech, told TIME. “He controls the dials that determine whose voices are heard in what he’s created is the modern public square, and now he’s openly putting his thumb on the scale and the election.”

Musk’s comments on Twitter come just one day before midterm elections that will determine whether Democrats can retain control of the House and crack the evenly divided Senate. Its original a tweetwhich garnered over 43,000 retweets and over 280,000 likes eight hours after it was posted, recommended voting Republican because “shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties,” he wrote.

“If Jack Dorsey had advocated that people vote Democrat, the Republicans would have opposed him in Congress the same day or the next day,” Gill added.

Since taking over Twitter on October 30, Musk has caused a stir on the social media platform. He fired hundreds of employees and the company’s board, publicly warned Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and shared a meme that featured a Nazi soldier. The self-described “free speech absolutist” suggested he would loosen standards to control harmful content such as disinformation and hate speech as Twitter’s owner.

He also expressed support for restoring access to former President Donald Trump, whose account was permanently suspended last year after the deadly January 6 attempted uprising at the US Capitol.

The price of discourse

Musk clarified Monday night that he is an independent voter and has “an actual history of voting as an all-Democrat until this year.” Since 2015, he has donated to both political parties, including more than $105,000 to Democratic causes and candidates and more than $98,000 to Republicans, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit campaign finance organization.

While social media executives are no strangers to political discourse, it’s rare for them to directly endorse a party. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is donating $400 million to help election offices adapt to changes in voting behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic, although Zuckerberg has denied allegations that the money will have partisan influence.

“Musk has an absolute right to free speech,” Angelo Carusone, president of the nonprofit Media Matters, told TIME. “But he’s a social media executive who in theory should make neutral decisions, and he seems to have a particular ax to grind with liberals and the left.” I worry that when someone is at the helm making these decisions, who has now explicitly identified and advocates for a party, then doesn’t that raise questions about other behaviors and actions?’

Read more: Twitter bans accounts mocking “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk

A U-turn to neutrality

Musk’s decision to suggest independent voters vote Republican marks a significant shift in the billionaire’s stance on keeping Twitter a neutral platform. He tweeted in April that “For Twitter to earn public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.”

To Independent Voters:

Shared power limits the worst excesses of both parties, so I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the presidency is Democratic.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 7, 2022

A possible shift in his thinking could present a clearer understanding of how he plans to run the platform. As its owner, Musk has the ability to change Twitter’s algorithm and limit certain accounts from popping up in feeds. Media watchers warn that his influence and political convictions could be particularly dangerous to a truly neutral dialogue.

“Algorithms are created, monitored and changed by people,” says Gill. “It’s not just a set of numbers and code that works without human intervention. They depend on the people who create them – and now Elon Musk controls Twitter’s algorithm. That’s what’s troubling about this case.”

Caruson says it’s possible a congressional committee could ask Musk to testify about how Twitter designs its algorithm, similar to Zuckerberg’s testimony, though Republicans may go easy on Musk or outright deny him given his recent connections with the party. “One question they’d like to know is what type of information the algorithm privileges,” Caruson says, adding that they may also be interested in how his Twitter operations align with his other business interests in the U.S. and abroad. Musk also owns Tesla and SpaceX.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read more: What we know—and don’t know—about Elon Musk’s ever-changing vetting plans

The threat of disinformation on Twitter

Last week, Musk retweeted a conspiracy theory about the violent attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He later deleted the tweet, but not before amassing more than 28,000 retweets and 100,000 likes.

A number of advertisers have pulled out of Twitter amid growing fears that misinformation and hate speech will be allowed to spread on the platform under Musk’s leadership. Companies ranging from Volkswagen to General Mills and REI have confirmed they will stop advertising on Twitter, ultimately leaving the social media platform without some of its biggest sources of revenue.

“Some brands and companies are concerned about the direction he’s taking Twitter, but they don’t want to come out and say it publicly because they’re terrified of what he’s going to say on the platform,” says Gill.

President Joe Biden criticized Musk’s acquisition of Twitter at a campaign stop in Chicago last week, calling it “an outfit that spews lies all over the world.” Musk said Twitter would charge users $8 a month for the company’s user verification feature, which has long been used to prevent imposters from impersonating government officials, celebrities and journalists. Musk’s changes to the verification system could also make it easier for misinformation to spread on the platform, some say experts.

“Musk sees the landscape right now in much the same way that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes saw the landscape,” Caruson says, “which is that when they looked around, what they saw was a liberal media and the idea that Fox News can be creative and balance the rest. And it works – commercially, from a consumer perspective, from an audience perspective – even if it has devastating effects.”

More election coverage from TIME

Write to Nick Popley at [email protected].

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