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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Twitter must not get dragged down a dangerous rabbit hole
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Twitter must not get dragged down a dangerous rabbit hole

When Elton John announced last week that he was leaving Twitter because of its handling of misinformation, he got a reply from Elon Musk himself

Musk seems on track right now to go “full Pizza Gate”, which refers to a QAnon fabrication about world leaders running a child sex trafficking ring. We seem to be watching him drag himself and Twitter down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. (AFP)Premium
Musk seems on track right now to go “full Pizza Gate”, which refers to a QAnon fabrication about world leaders running a child sex trafficking ring. We seem to be watching him drag himself and Twitter down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. (AFP)

When Elton John announced last week that he was leaving Twitter because of its handling of misinformation, he got a reply from Elon Musk himself. “I love your music," Musk tweeted. “Is there any misinformation in particular that you’re concerned about?" The singer didn’t reply. Instead, Musk provided an answer himself two days later.

In one short tweet, Musk signalled his support for a widespread anti-vaccine conspiracy theory sometimes referred to as Nuremberg 2.0—after the post-World War II trials of Nazis—that pushes the notion that world leaders, scientists and journalists will be put on trial for their supposed role in engineering a ‘false pandemic’. It is an absurd theory made more serious by dissuading vulnerable people from getting covid vaccines, and one likely to flourish on Twitter after the site dropped its covid misinformation policy last month—the rule change that likely sparked Elton John’s decision to leave.

Musk seems on track right now to go “full Pizza Gate", which refers to a QAnon fabrication about world leaders running a child sex trafficking ring. We seem to be watching him drag himself and Twitter down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.

Nearly each day that goes by sees the billionaire amplifying more paranoid ideas to dangerous effect. He promoted a baseless anti-LGBTQ claim about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband hours after a man attacked Paul Pelosi in the couple’s home. And he has made public internal Twitter emails, sparking a torrent of conspiratorial conversation on the platform.

This week, Musk posted a tweet that confirmed his own trajectory: “Follow [the white rabbit]," a phrase associated with QAnon conspiracy followers. The tweet was reposted on several of QAnon’s most popular forums and appeared to galvanize members of those networks.

Musk has been blasting Twitter’s decision to de-platform Donald Trump after the 6 January mob attack on the US Capitol, but Musk’s own tweets increasingly look like they could whip up frightening mobs, too. Over the weekend, he baselessly suggested that his former head of trust and safety was an advocate for child sexualization, posting a screenshot from Yoel Roth’s 2016 college dissertation about safer ways of accessing a gay dating site.

It wasn’t the first time he used Twitter to throw a paedophilia accusation at someone, but in this case, Musk probably knew that extremist groups had been pushing the odious idea that gay people were “grooming" children to abuse them. Roth has since had to flee his home following a surge in threats.

Far from being a responsible custodian for a “public town square," as he described it, Musk seems to be leveraging the platform to stoke outrage and clicks, something that all manner of repugnant extremists have been doing for years.

Musk’s team has been mining Twitter’s internal emails to claim that the site misused its power before he took the reins this fall. Known as the Twitter Files, they purport to show, among other things, that the company swayed the US election by restricting the spread of a New York Post article about material found on Hunter Biden’s laptop, due to questions about the origin of the material. Twitter also froze the Post’s account for 16 days after the story was published.

The internal ‘files’ point to ineptitude more than conspiracy, showing a lot of internal hand-wringing over what to do about the story, with Twitter executives at the time believing that the New York Post had acquired hacked data and deciding that this would breach Twitter’s no-hacked materials rule.

Roth, the former safety head, has said that Twitter shouldn’t have blocked the story— and he is right. Twitter and Facebook both overstepped their mark by trying to correct actions happening off their sites.

Twitter should have instead stayed focused on making sure its own platform wasn’t being weaponized to make election meddling—or hate speech or misinformation—worse. But that is precisely what Musk appears to be doing now, and his decision this week to dissolve Twitter’s trust and safety council won’t help matters.

Musk is well within his rights to use Twitter to promote a political party or broadly controversial ideas. But in doing so, he would be lurching toward darker fringes, where narratives rooted in bigotry and lies thrive , just as social networks were getting misinformation under control.

It’s a shame to see Musk give advertisers more reason to stay away from Twitter, but even bigger problems could arise for the health of online discourse if he continues to let damaging falsehoods spread. The billionaire may find all this very entertaining or “spicy", but it will not be when someone gets hurt.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

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Published: 15 Dec 2022, 10:04 PM IST
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