Is Musk’s Twitter ready for a surge in US midterm misinformation?

Days after Twitter Inc fired half its staff and new owner Elon Musk tweeted a recommendation to vote for Republican candidates, election experts are anxiously bracing for a surge in online misinformation as Americans head to the polls on Tuesday.

Researchers who study election misinformation say threats, offensive language and false rumours of election fraud have been circulating widely before the US midterm elections, which will determine control of Congress for the next two years.

Prevalent narratives include false claims that delays in vote counting are associated with fraud and that disease outbreaks are orchestrated as “scare tactics” to manipulate the election.

On Tuesday morning, misleading posts continued to spread on Twitter and Meta Platforms Inc’s Facebook that voting machine glitches were evidence of vote tampering and that if results were finalised by the end of the day, it meant the election was fraudulent, Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns at Common Cause, told a news briefing. Common Cause is a nonpartisan organisation which runs a social media monitoring programme to identify voter suppression efforts.

Littlewood said the level of misinformation by Tuesday morning was “concerning” but was not yet higher than in 2020. However, he added, “We know that disinformation will spike after Election Day.”

The layoffs at Twitter on Friday appear to have already resulted in a “big slowdown” in the company’s responses to reports of those false narratives, Common Cause said on Monday.

Common Cause said Twitter representatives were still acknowledging receipt of the tweets it was flagging, but it was taking longer than usual for the social media platform to assess them.

“What’s concerning and relatively new is that it has taken Twitter much longer than normal to adjudicate if these tweets violate their policies,” the organisation said.

Tweets flagged on Friday were still marked as being “under review” as of Monday evening, although the process usually takes only a few hours, the group added.

Twitter, which has lost many members of its communications team, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Teams gutted

A week after Musk took control of Twitter in a $44bn deal, he gutted many of the company’s teams responsible for elevating credible information, including content curation, human rights and machine-learning ethics.

The layoffs also affected engineers across product and core infrastructure teams.

During the weekend, Twitter compiled lists of people it had accidentally laid off and planned to ask them to return, according to sources familiar with the matter and an internal Slack message reviewed by Reuters.

Both Musk and Twitter’s head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth have sought to reassure users, civil rights groups and advertisers about the platform’s approach to the midterm elections.

Musk tweeted last week that Twitter would uphold and enforce its election integrity policies, after meeting with activist groups that have pressured advertisers to pull their Twitter ads.

Roth also said on Friday that the trust and safety team, which is responsible for clamping down on harmful content, suffered less impact from the layoffs than other teams.

Twitter also decided to delay an option for premium Twitter subscribers to pay for their profiles to be verified until after the election, Roth tweeted on Monday night.

“We’re particularly focused on the risks of impersonation of public officials in the context of the US 2022 midterm elections,” he said, explaining the rationale for the delay.

Musk’s endorsement of a Republican-controlled Congress on Monday also raised the risk of misinformation, said Eddie Perez, a board member at OSET Institute, a nonpartisan group that works on election security. Perez previously worked on civic integrity at Twitter.

“If the billionaire owner of Twitter is supporting one side, users may give credence to false claims simply because they may be aligned with his apparent preferences,” he said.

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