How Elon Musk’s Twitter could influence the 2022 midterm elections

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With less than two weeks until the midterm elections, about 20 employees from across Twitter have volunteered to help the social network’s internal “Election Squad” enforce its rules at a crucial moment for U.S. politics. In crash-course training sessions this week, the volunteers learned the basics of how to spot election misinformation, detect bots pushing propaganda and flag potential violations of Twitter’s rules to the company’s policy staff.

Since 2018, the call for volunteers has been part of an all-hands-on-deck approach to major elections, as the company’s overstretched content moderators work around-the-clock for a week before and after the vote to stanch the tide of viral falsehoods, intimidation campaigns and foreign influence operations.

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But this election cycle, the company is in greater disarray than ever — increasing the risk that cagey political operatives will be able to use the platform to deceive voters or undermine the legitimacy of results. Twitter has weathered a year of managerial chaos since a CEO change, hundreds of employees have reportedly left and a high-level whistleblower warned that the company lacks the resources to enforce its own election policies globally.

Adding to the uncertainty is that billionaire Elon Musk is expected to close his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter by Friday. He has indicated that he will roll back Twitter’s content moderation efforts, reinstate some of its most notorious purveyors of election lies and lay off as much as 75 percent of its workforce. How his changes will affect Twitter’s midterm plan is unknown.

“Given the rapid growth in the scale of disinformation since 2020, it’s reasonable to doubt whether they can keep up,” said Edward Perez, Twitter’s former product director for civic integrity, which includes its election policies. Perez is now a board member at the OSET Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to election security and election integrity.

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Twitter spokesperson Katie Rosborough confirmed the call for volunteers ahead of midterms and said the company had previously done the same during the 2020 U.S. presidential election as well as the recent elections in Brazil.

“People use Twitter to find real-time, reliable information about elections, and our investment in this work underscores how seriously we take that responsibility,” Rosborough said.

During a June 16 town hall with Twitter employees, Elon Musk said Twitter users should not be offended but “very entertained.” (Video: The Washington Post/Elizabeth Dwoskin)

Musk did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment about what he will do in his first days of ownership. He visited Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters on Wednesday to speak with executives and is expected to address employees on Friday. Since launching his takeover bid, he has consistently criticized the company for what he sees as an overly censorial approach to online speech.

Musk has also suggested he might lift the company’s ban on former president Donald Trump, whose erratic tweets were capable of rewriting the country’s political agenda on any given day.

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From the Arab Spring to the Trump presidency to #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, Twitter has played a pivotal role in global politics that belies the company’s relatively small size compared with rivals such as Meta and Alphabet. Like its rivals, Twitter began investing more heavily in content moderation following revelations in 2017 of Russian influence campaigns that used social platforms to inflame societal conflicts in the United States ahead of the 2016 presidential election. It has tapped its employees’ zeal to “protect the conversation” around major political events.

Yet it has often seemed overmatched by the hordes of bots and the pace at which lies can ricochet across its platform.

The midterms have been particularly tricky for social media platforms such as Twitter, in part because hundreds of GOP candidates have embraced Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Those candidates and their supporters have turned to social media to spread conspiracies about election-rigging.

The stakes of Twitter’s decisions are high. Experts have said such misinformation on social media could erode Americans’ faith in the electoral process. And the companies have to make tough decisions about what content to leave up or take down in a campaign season in which control of both the House and Senate is up for grabs.

In August, Twitter announced a 2022 midterms plan that largely mimicked the strategies the company deployed in previous election cycles, including promoting accurate information about the election while suppressing the reach of misinformation. Twitter said it would apply misinformation labels or remove posts that undermine confidence in the electoral process, including 2020 claims that the election was rigged.

The company previously pulled back on this so-called “civic integrity” policy after the 2020 election ended, despite internal concern that election deniers were still using it to push lies and distortions, said two people familiar with internal debates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe them. Rosborough said the company had “ramped down enforcement” of its U.S. election policies “as harms and risks around the contest evolved.”

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The company also started state-specific event hubs promoting credible news reports about the primaries, creating candidate account labels, and redesigning its labels for misinformed tweets. And it pulled volunteers from across departments away from their normal work in the coming weeks to help safeguard “the authenticity and integrity of election-related conversation on the platform,” as the internal #ElectionSquad memo put it.

The memo asked the volunteers to sign up for four-hour shifts over a two-week period from Nov. 1 to 15. They were also asked to list their foreign-language skills. The audit in the whistleblower report found that Twitter was so short on language capacity that many of its content moderators resorted to Google Translate.

Rosborough said the Election Squad is made up of leaders from different departments at the company who have been meeting regularly for more than a year to prepare for the election. She said the call for volunteers with specific skill sets was a way to “ensure we had redundancies in place” at a critical moment, adding that it has “worked well” in past elections.

Twitter has also conducted “a number of table top and threat model exercises around the midterms,” Rosborough said. She declined to comment on whether the company has planned for what might happen to its election integrity efforts if and when Musk assumes ownership.

Twitter employees involved in the company’s efforts around midterms are forging ahead for now, but many are privately worried that Musk could soon halt or undo some of their work.

“I think he could tear up those policies around civic integrity and halt enforcement pretty much immediately,” said one employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. “Imagine we’ll see a ton of intimidation videos of people voting, and misinfo narratives about who they are, doxing them, watching their names trend, and nothing can be done about it.”

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