Friday, May 24

Elon Musk spreads election misinformation about X without fact checkers

In the spring of 2020, when President Donald J. Trump tweeted messages warning that increased reliance on mail-in ballots would lead to a “rigged election,” the platform took a corrective, debunking his claims.

“Get the facts about mail-in voting,” reads a content label. “Experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud,” the hyperlinked article stated.

This month, Elon Musk, who has since bought Twitter and renamed it X, echoed many of Trump’s claims about the American voting system, advancing distorted and false notions that American elections were open to fraud and illegal voting by non-citizens.

This time, there were no fact checks. And Algorithm X, under Musk’s direct control, has helped posts reach large audiences, in some cases attracting many millions of views.

Since taking control of the site, Musk has dismantled the platform’s system for reporting false election content, claiming it amounted to election interference.

Now, his early election-year attacks on a proven voting method are raising alarms among civil rights lawyers, election administrators and Democrats. They fear that his control of the large social media platform gives him enormous ability to reignite doubts about the American electoral system that were so widespread in the run-up to the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot.

As Trump’s victory in New Hampshire brought the race closer to general election grounds, the Biden campaign for the first time directly criticized Musk for his handling of campaign content on how our elections work,” Biden campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez said in a statement to the New York Times this week.

“It is even more dangerous if it is said by the owner of a social media platform,” he added.

What angers the Biden campaign is delighting pro-Trump Republicans and others who paint the old Twitter as part of a government-controlled censorship regime that helped Biden in 2020. Under a system now under discussion at the Supreme Court, government officials alerted platforms to posts they deemed dangerous, though it was up to companies to take action or not.

“Oh, boo hoo,” Harmeet K. Dhillon, a lawyer whose firm represents Trump, said of the Democrats’ complaints. Ms. Dhillon sued the company for suspending an election-denying customer’s account after receiving a notice from California election officials — the kind of interaction with the government that Mr. Musk has repudiated. She noted that the platform is now “a much better place for conservatives” and said of Musk, “he’s great.”

X did not respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, its CEO, Linda Yaccarinowrote in a blog post that the platform has expanded its alternative approach to fact-checking misinformation, through crowdsourcing”community notes” written by users.

There were no such notes in Musk’s voting messages. But they were on a post from another user X who absurdly claimed that Mr. Biden only won the New Hampshire primary through rigged voting.

The freer flow of false information about voting is hardly the only perceived threat to social platform-based elections, with the rise of artificial intelligence, increasingly realistic deep fakes and a growing acceptance of political violence.

The fact that the Biden campaign singled out Musk highlights the unique role he is already playing in the 2024 election.

No major media owner in the modern era has used his national platform to insert himself so personally and aggressively into American elections.

Although Rupert Murdoch’s conservative media empire, which includes Fox News, has exerted unrivaled influence on US politics for decades, he has remained largely behind the scenes, generally leaving his editors, producers and hosts the task of determining the details of coverage.

And although Facebook is bigger than X, its owner, Mark Zuckerberg, is accountable to shareholders and responsive to advertisers. He has tried to avoid getting personally involved in the political fray.

Mr Musk took action just days after taking ownership of the site, urging his followers to vote Republican. He has been open in his contempt for Biden, whose White House has at times responded in kind.

On the other hand, Musk has no concerns for shareholders of X, which he took private at the end of 2022. He has rejected complaints from advertisers or requests to block content that could undermine trust in democracy.

Exhibiting a uniquely 21st-century form of raw media power, of 2020 had been stolen. The platform’s algorithm, which determines how posts are spread on the site, now also offers an additional promotion to those who pay to be “verified,” including previously banned accounts.

Among them is @KanekoaTheGreat, a once-banned QAnon influencer who this month released a 32-page dossier promoted by Trump that chronicled a barrage of false allegations about the 2020 election.

It has gotten nearly 22 million views.

In 2020, Twitter’s “election integrity hub,” which had an open line with outside groups and political campaigns, deleted or added context to posts with misleading information about voting.

Posts with false information about when and where to vote, for example, would be removed. Those with misleading information about mail-in voting, like Trump’s, would receive alerts directing users to fact-checking alerts and articles.

As Trump and his allies step up their attacks on mail-in voting – a method favored by Democrats during the coronavirus pandemic – Twitter enlarged its policy aims to remove or label statements that “undermine confidence” in elections.

Such measures have proven effective only in a certain sense. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other major platforms that had similar measures were also awash in election lies, and in the months following the January 6 attack were criticized for not doing enough.

Agreeing with critics who say the measures caused unfair and one-sided censorship, Musk said he cut the integrity team last fall because it was effectively “undermining election integrity.” He added: “They’re gone.” (Its CEO, Ms. Yaccarino, quickly disputed that characterization, saying the work would continue and even expand.)

Maya Wiley, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which communicated regularly with the platforms in 2020, said Musk’s decision had ripple effects. “He also gave people like Facebook and YouTube a free pass,” she said.

X is more forgiving politics still addresses posts that incite violence, that include verifiably false information about voting locations and dates, or that mislead about eligibility laws, “including identification or citizenship requirements.”

Musk’s recent posts seem to fly in the face of this rule.

On January 10, he responded to a post about the recent influx of undocumented immigrants by writing, falsely, that “illegals are not prevented from voting in federal elections. This was a surprise to me. A couple of days earlier, Musk had implied that Biden and the Democrats had been lax on immigration because “they’re importing voters,” an echo of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory Trump was sharing around the same time. .

US law prohibits noncitizens from voting in federal elections, under threat of prison and deportation. Cases of illegal voting by non-citizens are rare.

Musk has also raised broader doubts about America’s electoral system. On January 8 he wrote that voters in the United States “do not need a government-issued ID to vote and you can mail in your own ballot. This is crazy.” The post has been viewed 59 million times.

More than half of states require voters to produce some form of identification at the polls, and most do not require signatures, affidavits, or dates of birth; federal law requires voter verification of identification when registering.

In November, he picked up a story about considerable evidence of widespread mail-in voter fraud in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and wrote, “The only question is how common it is.”

Where Bridgeport’s problems are real — so much so that a judge ordered a redo of the Democratic primary — they are also rare. Mail-in ballots have been used for years and, with various safeguards, have proven extremely reliable, with bipartisan acceptance, at least before Trump stepped up criticism of the method.

Mr. Trump has failed to provide evidence of any significant fraud in any of his lawsuits challenging his 2020 defeat.

That hasn’t stopped Musk from adding to the constant buzz of doubts about the voting system among millions of Americans, contributing to an already tense climate for election workers as Trump resumes his stolen 2024 election lies, some election officials said.

“It bubbles and keeps the temperature higher,” said Stephen Richer, recorder of Maricopa County, Arizona, a hot spot for election conspiracy theories. A Republican and longtime admirer of Musk’s business achievements, Richer added: “Whether it’s President Trump or Mr. Musk talking about this and keeping it a priority issue, it has the potential to make our lives more challenging.” .”

The Biden campaign shares this concern. “We will continue to denounce this recklessness as we carry out President Biden’s pledge to protect our elections,” Ms. Chávez Rodríguez said.

This, however, is the only option available to the campaign: the complaint line between the campaign and the platform is dead.

Audio produced by Adriana Hurst.