Elon Musk’s expected takeover of Twitter has Washington holding its breath.
If the world’s richest man reinstates Donald Trump — along with other controversial politicians banned for rules violations — Republican campaign managers could again find their days wrecked by Tweet-driven headaches.
Meanwhile, Democrats worry a revived Trump Twitter feed could be a huge boon for his future presidential ambitions.
Or Musk, who says he’s a “free speech absolutist,” could end up scaring off users — and invite a wave of litigation — if he does away with the platform’s efforts to weed out disinformation, racism and other vitriol.
“If they say something that is illegal or otherwise just destructive to the world — then there should be perhaps a timeout, a temporary suspension. … But I think permabans just fundamentally undermine trust in Twitter,” Musk has said in the past.
Beloved by politicians and journalists, though perhaps not as widely read outside the Beltway, the platform looks like it’s headed for major changes that could shape the upcoming midterms — and 2024 presidential elections — especially if Trump is allowed back.
What exactly this means for Washington’s political elite and journalists who rely on the platform for breaking news and political discourse remains up in the air, but here are some potential pitfalls of a Musk-run Twitter:
A Trump return: Good for Dems?
With less than five weeks until the 2022 midterms, a Trump return could serve as a distraction for the GOP and a key messaging narrative for Democrats.
“The risk is that it helps Democrats succeed in framing this as an election about Donald Trump, which they would love to do, even though he's not on the ballot, he’s not anywhere close to a ballot,” Eric Wilson, a managing partner of Startup Caucus, a Republican campaign technology investment fund, said in an interview.
And looking ahead — a Trump return could have a “tremendous impact on 2024 elections, especially if Donald Trump is a presidential candidate,” Andrew Bleeker, president of the progressive political public affairs firm Bully Pulpit Interactive, said in an interview. “You can think of it as a $40 billion donation to the Trump campaign.”
Still, it’s not entirely clear whether Trump would help — or hurt — Republicans. “It’s like the weather, I can’t know what the weather’s going to be on Election Day, but it’s going to have an impact. It could be good, it could be bad,” Wilson said.
It could also mean the return of midnight tweet storms that political reporters and editors had come to dread — and expect — during the Trump administration.
Misinformation and hate speech could poison the platform
Despite its ups and downs, Twitter has had one of the more responsible content moderation policies of the large social media platforms, said Mark Jablonowski, president of DSPolitical, an advertising technology firm supporting Democratic candidates.
“Pulling that risks Twitter turning into a 4chan or an 8chan, which we just really don't want to see,” he said.
“If Trump is able to throw his support behind candidates with a very loud megaphone that may not be factually accurate, sharing misinformation and disinformation, that can absolutely sway elections away from Democrats,” Jablonowski said.
Also, less moderation could lead to a dramatic rise in hate speech and extremism on the platform, watchdog groups say.
“I think there’s a serious threat to democracy,” Jessica González, co-CEO of Free Press, a nonpartisan media advocacy organization, said in an interview. “I think we'll see prolific conspiracy theories, and white supremacists return to the platform and a lot more people who hold power and who are willing to use platforms to spread hate and harassment campaigns.”
Tech companies, including Twitter, have invested heavily trying to establish nuanced rules to keep such offensive types of speech off the platform, Bleeker said. But, he adds, Musk is going to need to act quickly to recoup his investment, and he’s going to move towards subscriptions and cost cutting measures to get there.
“The fear is that a lot of the important safety mechanisms are the first thing to go in the name of free speech,” he said.
An explosion of hate speech could also raise significant legal challenges for Twitter said Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a tech policy think tank.
She noted that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases this term that threaten tech companies’ coveted liability shield. And the Digital Services Act regulation in the EU is aimed at cracking down on illegal and harmful content on the platforms. “The legal environment in general that Twitter is operating in is just increasingly less forgiving about abuse going unaddressed,” Llanso said.
An exodus of politicians? TBD
In a world where Twitter has zero or very little content moderation — will all of its politicians jump ship? That’s a possibility.
“Politicians go where voters are. And so long as the people who are upstream of shaping political narratives — namely journalists, talking heads, pundits, political operatives — are active on Twitter, then expect the politicians to be there,” Wilson said.
“If it becomes an unpleasant place for those people, then they'll leave and go somewhere else presumably,” he said.
However, political advisers on both sides of the aisle remain skeptical that Musk will blow up the platform after paying $44 billion to buy it.
“To make money you need people to be on the platform,” Wilson said. “There are steps between where Twitter is now and an Internet cesspool. It's not an either, or.”
Jablonowski said, “There's always a possibility that he's able to walk the tightrope and get it just right.”
One other source of revenue for Musk — and a major draw to attract more politicians to the platform and keep them there — would be to lift the ban on political advertising that former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey put in place in October 2019.
“Allowing paid media for political campaigns could in theory help campaigns amplify a message combating misinformation on the platform,” Jablonowski said. “But it really depends because would politicians want to be advertising on a platform that is filled with hate speech and disinformation?”
But one big caveat
One key point, however, is often overlooked: Twitter has never been very popular with the average voter. And while a Musk takeover may push some politicians off the platform, it’s still not where the majority of voters spend their time.
“Twitter is not a platform for raising money. It’s not a platform for persuading voters. It is all about shaping that narrative for campaigns,” Wilson said.
Bleeker added, “Twitter is the news real time platform for politics, but it's not the primary place that you're going to reach the vast majority of voters and really educate the vast majority of voters. Facebook platforms today and YouTube really have a much greater reach to the actual American public.”
However it plays out, the Tesla CEO’s $44 billion offer to buy Washington’s favorite social media site appears to have gotten a green light from Twitter on Tuesday … for the second time, after he had tried to back out of the deal and was eventually sued by Twitter this summer. Although the Delaware Court of Chancery judge said on Wednesday that a planned trial is still on as of now — set to begin Oct. 17.