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Elon Musk deleted a tweet about Paul Pelosi. Here’s why that matters.

The comment amplified a baseless report about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband and stirred an outcry

The San Francisco home of Rep. Nancy Pelosi. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Elon Musk, who has more than 100 million followers, had owned Twitter for less than three full days when he shared a post containing misinformation — then hours later deleted it.

On Sunday, he posted a response to Hillary Clinton that “there is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story” behind the attack on Paul Pelosi in San Francisco, linking to an opinion article in the Santa Monica Observer, a site described by fact-checkers as a low-credibility source favoring the extreme right.

The article claimed without evidence that Pelosi was drunk at the time of the assault and “in a dispute with a male prostitute.” The article, which was amplified by several right-wing figures, cited no sources and attributes its contents to IMHO — internet shorthand for “in my humble opinion.”

Musk faced immediate and widespread backlash from users who said the tweet revealed his Twitter ownership as unserious and accused him of promoting an unfounded conspiracy theory.

One commenter, Yael Eisenstat, a vice president of the Anti Defamation League and former Facebook executive, noted on Twitter that Musk seemed to be violating his own pledge to advertisers last week that the site would not become a “hellscape” under his ownership.

Another Twitter user, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and political pundit with nearly 293,000 Twitter followers, suggested Musk eventually would have to ban himself.

Hours later, Musk deleted his tweet. It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted him to do so.

But it highlights the conflict Musk faces as he takes over a social media platform whose moderation policies he’s consistently criticized as too strict while also pledging that he won’t allow it to become a free-for-all that advertisers might not want to associate with. Already, Musk has had to acknowledge that suspended accounts like former president Donald Trump’s won’t be reinstated until a so-far-undefined “moderation council” has convened to determine policy.

Neither Musk nor Twitter responded to a request for comment.

On Oct. 27, Elon Musk completed his purchase of Twitter and began taking control of the social media company, firing several key executives. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Musk has one of the largest audiences of any public figure on Twitter, and is among its most prolific tweeters. He has a track record of using his account to promote or allude to misinformation, and to interact with and amplify a circle of prominent right-wing influencers online.

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Elon Musk and Twitter
‘The bird is freed’
Elon Musk completed the acquisition of Twitter for $44 billion on Oct. 27. A lot has happened since then as Musk moves to overhaul the company, taking it private and firing top executives and handing half of Twitter’s workers pink slips.
Before the billionaire sealed the deal, an analysis of his 19,000 tweets showed his complicated relationship with Twitter.
Content moderation
Musk stated his desire to own the social media company so that there’s “an inclusive arena for free speech.” But not long after Musk took control, the Twitter trolls went on a rampage.
In an attempt to reassure advertisers, Musk said during a Twitter Spaces he had noted concerns about hate speech and misinformation on the platform. However, concerns continued to grow after top executives, including those leading content moderation efforts, quit.
The new blue check marks
Paid verification was the first product to launch under Musk’s leadership, and its roll-out was anything but smooth. The $7.99 subscription allowed any user to have a sought-after blue check mark, but after an explosion of impersonation accounts the program was paused. The backlash to the flood of misinformation caused some brands to pull their advertising from the platform.
Check your Twitter privacy settings if you’re worried about your data.
Be hardcore
Musk issued the remaining staff an ultimatum: commit to a new “hardcore” Twitter with longer hours and no remote work or leave the company with severance pay. Hundreds are said to have made the decision to leave the company.
The number of likely departures prompted Musk to ease his return-to-office edict and managers to meet to decide which engineers to ask back, causing many to question whether Twitter is on the verge of shutting down.

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Before closing on his purchase of Twitter, Musk expressed an expansive view of free speech, arguing for little policing beyond platforms removing speech that was clearly illegal. That approach would rule out the policing of misinformation, disinformation, harassment, bullying, and other content that Twitter and other social media companies take action against, through a system of deletions, warning notices, and quiet demotions known as “shadow bans.”

But that willingness to spout misinformation — or to boost it by using the tactic of “just raising questions” — could create major conflicts for him and for Twitter now that he owns the company.

Musk’s tweet Sunday did not appear to break any of Twitter’s current rules because it was framed as a question and because the types of misinformation Twitter bans are fairly limited. It’s unknown if he faced pressure inside Twitter or from advertisers before he deleted it.

Historically, social media company owners, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have tried to avoid controversial public political opinions because they don’t want to be perceived as putting their thumb on the scale of the algorithms that govern public expression. Moreover, social media platforms including Twitter have made a point of pushing the public toward authoritative sources of information to counter the proliferation of misinformation on their services. Putting up curated links and labels to reputable news sites is a key part of Twitter’s and other companies’ strategies to counter misleading content.

Advertisers, which are the main source of revenue for Twitter, are also known to protest such content. An advertiser boycott of Facebook in 2020 helped force that social media platform to adopt tougher policies on hate speech.

“Musk owning Twitter is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse when it comes to political misinformation,” said Joan Donovan, research director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. “When he was just a user, that did not matter as much as it does now because people may come to distrust the platform if they don’t trust the owner’s core values.”

Donovan said the Musk tweet failed to recognize Twitter’s value as a place where people seek authoritative information about everything from geopolitical conflicts to elections.

Elon Musk takes over Twitter

“We would imagine that in order to be seen as a trusted interlocutor, like a politician, business owner, or journalist, he would care about the quality of news in the so-called public square,” she said, adding that he should issue a correction.

Twitter largely does not prohibit misinformation except in certain cases. The company has a “crisis misinformation policy,” launched earlier this year during the Ukraine war, which lets the company put a warning notice on and demote content that “mischaracterizes conditions on the ground” as a conflict evolves.

The company also bans “deep fakes,” or the posting of any imagery or video that has been manipulated, as well as misinformation about the coronavirus. Content that purposefully attempts to mislead the public about voting processes or an election outcome is demoted by the company’s algorithms and could receive warning labels and links to authoritative information.

In 2020, Musk tweeted that “Kids are essentially immune” to covid-19, a comment that appeared to come right up against Twitter’s ban of content that contradicts established public health information about the virus (Children of all ages can contract and experience complications from the coronavirus, according to the Mayo Clinic, although are less likely to become severely ill).

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In 2018 Musk tweeted he had “Funding secured” to take Tesla private at $420 per share, leading the Securities and Exchange Commission to accuse him of misleading investors. Musk and the SEC settled, with Musk agreeing that he would relinquish his board chairmanship of Tesla, and that he and the company would each pay a $20 million fine.

He has also taken down tweets in the past. Just this month, Musk tweeted and then deleted a meme that showed he, former president Donald Trump and rapper and fashion designer Ye (formerly Kanye West) lording over various social networks (Ye bought the conservative network Parler and Trump controls his own network, TruthSocial). Twitter users captured screenshots of the tweet, which read “In retrospect, it was inevitable.”

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