What Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover could mean for climate disinformation

·6-min read

Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, has reached an agreement with Twitter to buy the social media platform for $44bn.

Mr Musk will pay $54.20 cash per share for the San Francisco-based company, and plans to take it private after days of negotiations with the platform’s board.

Earlier this month the Tesla and SpaceX CEO, who’s worth an estimated $279bn, revealed that he had acquired a large stake in the platform. Twitter’s stock price rose nearly 6 per cent on Monday but remained lower than where it was trading last year.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Mr Musk said in a statement after the deal was announced Monday.

He tweeted earlier: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”

The billionaire, a mercurial presence online, has made it clear that he intends to overhaul Twitter. The 50-year-old calls himself a “free-speech absolutist” - but also blocks people and has been known to sic his millions of followers onto those who apparently displease him.

Mr Musk has floated changes for Twitter including relaxing its content restrictions, introducing an edit button, and ridding the platform of fake and automated accounts known as “bots”.

Mr Musk appeared to acknowledge the difficulties of content moderation during a TED Talk this month.

“If it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist. In a case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you don’t necessarily promote that tweet. I’m not saying I have all the answers here, but I do think we want to be very reluctant to delete things, and just be very cautious with permanent bans — timeouts, I think, are better,” he said.

Moderating content and deplatforming - as Twitter famously did to former president Donald Trump over his repeated 2020 election lies - has been an ongoing headache for the platform, and Silicon Valley more broadly.

Online misinformation is a burgeoning threat with real-world impacts on election integrity; mistrust around Covid-19 vaccines and treatments; and denial of the scientific reality of climate change.

Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Independent that she believed Mr Musk was in for a rude awakening over “how hard content moderation actually is”.

She said: “These companies struggle to decide at what point people should be kicked off. Trump clearly violated the rules a number of times before he was actually booted but that’s because Twitter was weighing whether kicking off the elected President of the United States was going to cause more harm than good. Whether or not they got that calculation right? I think if you polled a dozen people, you’ll get a dozen different responses.

“At the same time, Twitter has allowed other people who promote misinformation to stay on the platform including random Americans without much clout, mainstream media, foreign actors.”

Christine Arena, a former ad agency executive and founder of Let Science Speak, an organisation combatting anti-science misinformation, said that while people cheer “free speech” and “freedom” in today’s information ecosystem, “one does not necessarily lead to the other”.

“On the contrary – extensive case research shows that hate speech inspires hate crimes, whereas lies destroy democracy. Similarly, climate disinformation results in stalled climate policy, increased greenhouse emissions and higher death tolls from fossil fuel pollution,” she wrote in an email to The Independent.

“Elon Musk’s free speech absolutism is potentially lethal because it encourages the continued unfiltered and unrestricted sharing of misleading climate content that is known to exacerbate the worst effects.”

Ms York, whose work examines how technology impacts societal and cultural values, noted that Mr Musk’s plans for Twitter so far have been “pretty contradictory”.

She pointed to his suggestion that Twitter would follow the laws of every country - despite the fact that the platform doesn’t currently acquiesce to certain governments’ demands. She also said that his idea of requiring people to submit their real names, or IDs, to use the platform could pose risks for activists, LGBTQ people, and those who already suffer harassment online.

Mr Musk has also signalled that culling the Twitter bots would be part of his plan. “If our twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!” he tweeted last week.

A 2020 study from Brown University - which analysed millions of tweets in the weeks around Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in 2017 - found that about 25 per cent were generated by bots, and spread misinformation about climate science.

Most people would agree that it’s a great idea to get rid of bots, Ms York said, but noted that “it’s also incredibly difficult, or [Twitter] would have just done it”.

“It’s not that Twitter loves bots but it’s that determining who is and is not a bot these days is really hard when you have governments like Russia paying farms of people to tweet out content, or even reply to people,” she added.

Twitter announced last week that it would no longer allow advertisers on the platform who deny the scientific consensus on climate change - but did not say if the policy would impact users’ tweets.

Google made a similar decision last year and Pinterest announced that it is banning climate misinformation across its platform this month.

These moves were cautiously welcomed by climate experts even as they urge Big Tech to go much further. A new report, from Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Avaaz, found that social media giants have an ongoing “gross lack of transparency” over the spread of climate denial, and that the public is largely in the dark about their efforts to combat the problem.

“Pinterest and YouTube have taken notable steps to address climate dis/ misinformation, while Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter trail behind in their efforts,” researchers wrote.

Michael Khoo, climate disinformation coalition co-chair at Friends of the Earth, told The Independent that platforms have been “falling over themselves” in the last six months to prove their responsible approaches to climate change content.

He said that people or groups who consistently lie about the climate crisis should not be artificially amplified by social media and should be subject to a strike system as part of widely-accepted community standards.

“I don't think it is that hard [to stop climate disinformation] because the vast majority is coming from repeat offenders. We have very sophisticated network analysis and it is increasingly easy to see that there's one group of people who are trolling on this subject.”

He added: “People who are repeat offenders should not have the right to pollute the broader environment. It's not a question of speech. It's a question of reach and artificial amplification that the platforms are giving these people.”

The Independent has contacted a spokesperson for Mr Musk and Twitter for comment.