Tesla CEO Elon Musk looks up as he addresses guests at the Offshore Northern Seas 2022 (ONS) meeting in Stavanger, Norway on August 29, 2022. Credit - Carina Johansen–NTB/ AFP
An executive of a mainstream social media platform has never told their users who to vote for in an upcoming election. But on Monday, Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk did just that—urging “independent-minded voters” to cast their ballots for Republicans in Tuesday’s midterm elections, which raises questions about how Musk’s platform could be used to influence political discourse and elections, media experts say.
“He’s a man 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, tells TIME. “He controls the dials that determine whose voices are heard in what he fashions is the modern public square, and now he’s openly putting his thumb on the scale and elections.”
Musk’s tweeted comments come just one day ahead of the midterm elections that will determine if Democrats can retain control of the House and break the evenly divided Senate. His original tweet, which garnered over 43,000 retweets and over 280,000 likes eight hours after it was posted, recommended voting for Republicans because “shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties,” he wrote.
“If Jack Dorsey had advocated for people to vote Democrat, Republicans would oppose him before Congress the same day or the next day,” Gill added.
Since taking over Twitter on Oct. 30, Musk has caused a stir at the social media platform. He fired hundreds of employees and the company’s board, publicly admonished Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and shared a meme that contained a Nazi soldier. The self-described “free speech absolutist” has suggested that he would loosen standards for the policing of harmful content such as misinformation and hate speech as the owner of Twitter.
He has also voiced support for restoring access to former President Donald Trump, whose account was permanently suspended last year after the deadly Jan. 6 attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The price of discourse
Musk clarified on Monday evening that he is an Independent voter, and has “an actual voting history of entirely Democrat until this year.” Since 2015, he has donated to both political parties, including over $105,000 to Democratic causes and candidates and over $98,000 to Republicans, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit campaign finance organization.
While social media executives are no stranger to political discourse, it’s rare for them to directly endorse a party. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $400 million to help election offices adapt to changes in voting behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic, though Zuckerberg denied accusations that the money would have a partisan influence.
“Musk absolutely has the right to free speech,” Angelo Carusone, the president of nonprofit watchdog Media Matters, tells TIME. “But he’s a social media executive who is in theory supposed to be making neutral decisions and it seems like he has a particular ax to grind with liberals and the left. I worry when someone is at the helm making these decisions, who’s now explicitly identified themselves and is advocating for a party, then doesn’t that raise questions about other behaviors and actions?”
A U-turn on neutrality
Musk’s decision to suggest independent voters cast their ballot for Republicans marks a significant U-turn in the billionaire’s stance on keeping Twitter a neutral platform. He tweeted in April that, “For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.”
To independent-minded voters:
Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 7, 2022
The possible shift in his thinking could present a more clear understanding of how he plans to run the platform. As its owner, Musk has the ability to change Twitter’s algorithm and to restrict certain accounts from popping up in feeds. Media watchdogs warn that his influence and political beliefs could be particularly dangerous for truly neutral dialogue.
“Algorithms are created, monitored and tweaked by human beings,” says Gill. “It’s not just a set of numbers and code that operates without human input. They depend on the people who create them—and now Elon Musk is in control of Twitter’s algorithm. That’s what’s alarming about this.”
Carusone says that it’s possible a congressional committee will request testimony from Musk over how Twitter engineers its algorithm, much like Zuckerberg’s testimony, though Republicans may give Musk an easy time—or a complete pass—given his recent ties to the party. “One question they would want to know is what type of information is the algorithm privileging,” Carusone says, adding that they could also be interested in how his Twitter operations are aligned 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.
The threat of misinformation on Twitter
Last week, Musk retweeted a fringe conspiracy theory about the violent attack on Paul Pelosi, husband to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. He later deleted the tweet, but not before racking up more than 28,000 retweets and 100,000 likes.
A number of advertisers have pulled back from Twitter amid growing fear that misinformation and hate speech would be allowed to proliferate on the platform under Musk’s leadership. Companies ranging from Volkswagen to General Mills to REI confirmed that they would suspend 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 in, but they don’t want to come out and say that publicly because they’re terrified of what he’ll say on the platform,” Gill says.
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 across the world.” Musk has said Twitter will charge users $8 per month for the company’s user verification feature, which has long been used to prevent imposters from impersonating government officials, prominent figures and journalists. Musk’s changes to the verification system could also make it easier for misinformation to spread on the platform, some experts say.
“Musk sees the landscape right now in much the same way that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes saw the landscape,” Carusone says, “which is that when they looked around them, what they saw was a liberal media and the idea that Fox News could sort of be creative and balance out the rest. And it works—from a commercial perspective, a consumer perspective, an audience perspective—even if it has devastating effects.”