Elon Musk has continued his push to enable more free and open speech on Twitter, this time by removing restrictions on Russian Government affiliated accounts, which previous Twitter management had implemented at the beginning of the Ukraine invasion.
In February last year, after Russia’s initial acts of aggression in the region, Twitter announced that it would be adding labels to Tweets that share links to Russian state-affiliated media websites, while also reducing the circulation of this content by removing it from recommendations, downranking it in algorithm-defined timelines and more.
Now, Twitter has rolled back all of these restrictions, with Musk stating that people should be able to judge all the information for themselves.
I’m told Putin called me a war criminal for helping Ukraine, so he’s not exactly my best friend.
All news is to some degree propaganda. Let people decide for themselves.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 9, 2023
The update aligns with Musk’s broader push for free speech, which has also included the removal of similar restrictions on Chinese state media accounts.
Researchers have found the previously implemented controls on Russian and Chinese messaging have now disappeared – which also comes as Musk’s other business, Tesla, announces the development of a new component factory in Shanghai.
This has long loomed as a key question around Elon Musk’s leadership at the app. With Tesla looking to expand its business operations in China and India specifically, both of which are under authoritarian governments, and which have both, at different times, sought to censor and utilize Twitter for propaganda initiatives, how will Musk handle that potential conflict, and appease leadership in both regions?
Indeed, CCP-affiliated groups have been found to be running large-scale influence operations via tweet in the past, while the Indian Government has called on Twitter, at various times, to remove tweets that it views as critical of the Government. Twitter has pushed back on both fronts, but now, it seems that Musk’s going to be putting more reliance on Community Notes to mediate such, as opposed to trying to moderate those pushes via management rulings.
Musk’s grand plan for moderation, and limiting the influence of such operations, is to push for maximal take-up or Twitter Blue, which, in his view, will kill off bot armies, as these programs won’t be able to afford to pay $8 per account to conduct their initiatives. With all the real humans in the app having a blue tick next to their name, the only remaining profiles will likely be bots – however, for this to work, it’ll require massive take-up of Twitter’s subscription program, which thus far has failed to resonate with the vast majority of users.
But that, in theory, would be one element, while Community Notes would do the rest of the heavy lifting, relying on volunteer moderators, who are also Twitter users, to allocate fact-check markers in order to help others navigate misinformation pushes.
Conceptually, that could work, but relying on volunteer moderators is risky, while allowing blatant propaganda from known state-affiliated media to remain in the app also seems like a significant risk.
But as Musk notes, in his view, ‘all news is to some degree propaganda’. And as such, who is he to say whether Russian, American or Chinese propaganda is bad?
That’s also become another point of contention this week, with Musk labeling NPR as ‘state-affiliated media’ due to his own ideological perspective on what NPR broadcasts. After backlash from various groups, Twitter has now changed NPR’s label to ‘Government-funded media’, a more accurate descriptor, which has also been appended to Britain’s BBC. But as many have since pointed out, if that’s a parameter that you’re going to allocate to accounts, then many businesses, including Musk’s own companies, and even Twitter itself, could be considered ‘Government-funded’ too.
It’s another element in Musk’s larger stand-off with traditional media outlets, which he’s repeatedly criticized as being inaccurate, opportunistic, and worse. Yet, at the same time, Musk has seen fit to restrict the reach of perceived Twitter competitors, of people sharing information about him that he doesn’t like, and critics of Tesla. While Musk decries the biases that have, in his view, poisoned traditional media, he himself is repeatedly doing the exact same things.
But it’s different when Elon does it, right? Somehow, among his millions of passionate supporters, Musk can do no wrong, and every move can be justified, under more variable parameters to those seen as being against.
It’s this element, this blinkered arrogance, that poses the biggest risk within Twitter 2.0, and could now see decades of work in combating foreign influence operations negated by reliance on flimsy, crowd-sourced security, which lessens the burden on Twitter itself.
Add to this the rise of generative AI, and increasingly real-looking simulations and imaginings, and you have the makings of a very dangerous situation, which Elon himself believes is nothing to worry about.
In Elon’s view, the government are liars, the media are liars – the only source of truth is what he says – even as he’s repeatedly proven wrong and forced to backtrack.
Sure, Community Notes might fact-check him too every now and then. But in his view, Twitter, which will now enable more government propaganda, is the one source that you can trust.
How that plays out in reality is another thing – while it also likely won’t do anything to appease Twitter advertisers who continue to reduce their spending in the app.