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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Elon Musk’s New Twitter Superpower Is Dangerous

On Twitter, Elon Musk is inescapable. Users logging in this week have found their feeds dominated by a stream of memes posted by the Twitter CEO after a change to the platform’s algorithm started to boost his tweets, apparently above all other accounts. As one user put it: “When did Elon become MySpace Tom?”

For years, politicians and researchers working on the integrity of civic spaces have warned about the risks of social media platforms being used by their owners to change public opinion. On TikTok, the reported existence of a secret “heating button,” which allows the company to boost content delivered via its For you algorithm, was greeted with breathless reporting that it could be used to promote Chinese interests in the West. Fears that the Chinese government might use the app to spy on or collect data from users have led to calls to ban TikTok in the United States and the United Kingdom.

An egregious, highly visible example of this kind of heating of content has just happened. Not on TikTok, on Twitter.

Musk’s decision to manipulate which tweets appear on people’s For You timeline was, according to Platformer, which broke the story, caused by his frustration that his tweet about who he was supporting in the Super Bowl was outperformed by a similar tweet from President Joe Biden. What followed looks like an attempt to change the narrative around Musk through brute force, bombarding users with his tweets by artificially boosting the display of his tweets by a factor of 1,000, enabling the “flooding” of feeds with Musk’s thoughts. Some users say they have still encountered Musk’s tweets despite blocking his account (and many, many have blocked Musk).

“He is manipulating the platform to force engagement centered around him and his content,” says Katja Muñoz, research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. While Musk’s use of algorithmic heating appears to be driven by insecurity, the fact that he can do it is alarming. “Singular acts are funny,” Muñoz says. “But I think it’s important to take a step back and look at the implications of his commitments or actions.” 

Muñoz says there’s an inherent conflict between Musk’s interest as a content creator on the platform and his ownership of the company that runs it and a similar conflict between his commercial pressures and his ownership of a “global public square.”

In January, Twitter acquiesced to the Indian government’s demands to censor a BBC documentary about the prime minister, Narendra Modi, despite Musk’s previous support for more absolutist ideas of free speech. India is Twitter’s third-largest market.

“Censoring content on the Modi documentary speaks for my assumption of [his reliance on] foreign investment and his dependence on raw materials,” says Muñoz. “It is highly unlikely that we will ever get hard evidence on whom Musk talks to or whether he is asked to do something, but looking at the visibility and engagement on, or lack of, topics might hint at these dynamics.”

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Musk has also restricted the use of his Starlink satellite internet service in Ukraine and made statements that have been interpreted as supporting Russia’s claims to Ukrainian territory. Musk’s other company, Tesla, relies on China as a market, as a manufacturing center, and as a source of raw materials, leading to concerns that he may be pressured to reduce or remove content critical of Beijing. In October, he was criticized for inserting himself into China’s dispute over the future of Taiwan.

Twitter has been used in the past to influence national politics in several countries. The Guardian reported this week that an Israeli company used the platform to manipulate the outcome of 27 elections. Under Musk, Twitter was also accused of being slow to act on surging election disinformation in Brazil that ended in an attempted coup.

Musk has also directly tweeted out misinformation himself. In January, he apologized for tweeting a baseless conspiracy theory about the husband of US house speaker Nancy Pelosi, Paul, who was assaulted in their home in late 2022. 

Neither Musk nor Twitter immediately responded to a request for comment.

Twitter is reported to have hollowed out its government relations teams worldwide, and it was the only Big Tech company to not supply a full report on disinformation to the European Union as part of its voluntary code of practice on disinformation this month. The apparent closure of Twitter’s press office also limits the company’s accountability. 

But while TikTok’s ability to change what users see has caused policymakers to scramble for regulation, the reaction to changes at Twitter has been muted. “The different levels of outrage by politicians highlights both their hypocrisy and low levels of media literacy,” says Steven Buckley, a lecturer in media and communications at City University, London, who specializes in US politics and social media. “Fundamentally, there is very little difference between what TikTok is doing to boost posts and what Twitter is now doing.”

Agnes Venema, a national security and disinformation researcher at the University of Malta, says she thinks Musk is given more leeway because he’s seen as a joker when he manipulates conversation, whereas TikTok, owned by the Chinese tech company Bytedance, is drawn into geopolitical debates. “I do see a double standard when it comes to the outrage about TikTok doing it while Musk goes his merry way,” says Venema. “I imagine this at least in part has to do with security interests, TikTok being Chinese, and the personality cult around Musk.”

That personality cult has helped Musk make drastic decisions about how the platform works without much scrutiny, according to Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Manchester Business School who has studied Musk’s idiosyncratic way of running Twitter. “He’s very much in the Trump mode from the point of view of needing attention,” says Cooper. “He wants attention, and he needs attention as a person.” 

However, Cooper doesn’t believe there’s much more to Musk’s decisions than that. “He is a man that craves attention. The man just needs the attention and adoration. I don’t think it’s nefarious.”

Venema says that Musk’s use of algorithmic heating should be a wake-up call. Platforms have always engaged in a degree of manipulation of what people see online, but it’s rarely so obvious.

“We all like to believe in this illusion that social media really is the marketplace of ideas, where everyone can gain an audience,” she says.  “Musk is in a way essential in pulling back the curtain and showing that in fact, some people are given a megaphone, whereas others aren’t.”

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