With the New Twitter, the Right Wing Disinfo is Coming from the TopBreaking News
tags: far right, Twitter, Elon Musk, White Supremacy, Disinformation
In recent years, we have become used to a certain level of political disinformation on social media, more or less accepting it as the cost of protecting free speech even as we continue to debate how much moderation should take place. Now, however, Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter is forcing us to come to terms with a new reality: a social media platform where the person running it is himself spreading the misinformation.
Where to begin? Last week, Musk responded to a tweet by Laura Loomer, one of many unhinged conspiracists who have been welcomed back to the platform since he took over:
Note that Musk is responding in earnest, and in a way that legitimizes the tweet’s assumptions and claims. The person he is responding to had previously been banned for life for violating Twitter’s hateful conduct policy. Loomer is a self-described white nationalist and Islamophobe, and her ostentatiously hateful views made it difficult for her to have an online life at all, for a time: She was previously banned from Facebook, Venmo, PayPal, GoFundMe, and Instagram. She was banned from CPAC. She was even banned from Uber and Lyft. How the hell do you get banned from Uber and Lyft? She blamed a wide-ranging conspiracy trying to silence her; in reality, she was suspended for a hate-filled Twitter rant about “never want[ing] to support another Islamic immigrant driver” through the rideshare services.
Laura Loomer is perhaps the single least reliable source of political information in America. Her errors are not random but predictably associated with a hate-filled worldview.
Yet Laura Loomer is also a person Elon Musk regards as a credible source of information on election administration, one he is happy to share with his 140 million followers.
Elon Musk welcomed her back to Twitter as part of a larger reorienting of the platform to, as he put it, prioritize free speech over content moderation; numerous other election deniers came back at the same time. But he didn’t just let them back into the room so they could hang out in their own dark corner; he pulled them into the very center of the action by regularly interacting with them, often assuring them that he would “look into” their claims of censorship, shadowbanning, or other misdeeds on the part of the platform under earlier ownership. And he hangs out online not just with people who believe the election was stolen, but with people like Tom Fitton and Jenna Ellis, who actually tried to help overthrow the 2020 election, and Mike Cernovich, an original Pizzagater.
Brandolini’s Law holds that the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it. Refuting bullshit requires some technological literacy, perhaps some policy knowledge, but most of all it requires time and a willingness to challenge your own prior beliefs, two things that are in precious short supply online. This is part of the argument for content moderation that limits the dispersal of bullshit: People simply don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to seek out the boring truth when stimulated by some online outrage. Letting the BS flow unimpeded entails accepting that it is going to get all over a lot of people.
Musk’s heralding of the expansion of Twitter’s “community notes” feature, which allows for crowdsourced factchecking, ignores how little it appears to have done to stop the flow of misinformation. Here we can return to the example of Loomer’s tweet. People did fact-check her, but it hardly matters: Following Musk’s reply, she ended up receiving over 5 million views, an exponentially larger online readership than is normal for her. In the attention economy, this counts as a major win. “Thank you so much for posting about this, @elonmusk!” she gushed in response to his reply. “I truly appreciate it.”
Let’s examine the content of her tweet. Contrary to Musk’s characterization, the Summit on American Democracy, which is a meeting of the Center for Election Integrity & Research (CEIR), is not a “far left conference.” It is a gathering of normie election officials figuring out how to manage the logistics of elections. Don’t believe me? The agenda and roster of speakers for the event are available online. The proceedings were recorded, and you can watch every presentation. There is nothing secret about any of it. It features officials from blue states and red states, Republicans and Democrats. (Note: Bulwark publisher Sarah Longwell was among the speakers.) The conference addresses topics that both parties say they care about, like maintaining the integrity of election rolls and counting ballots more quickly.