Midterm elections in the United States: experts warn of a risk of misinformation on Twitter

Beware of fake news in the middle of the countryside. Disinformation experts are calling for “caution” on Twitter this weekend, as the new boss of the influential social network has just laid off half of his staff a few days before crucial elections in the United States.

“We will have to be very careful on this platform in the coming days … On what you retweet, which account you subscribe to and in relation to your own perception of what is happening”, for example warned Kate Starbird, a disinformation researcher at the University of Washington.

The professor believes that there is an increased risk of malicious people impersonating others, carrying out “coordinated disinformation campaigns” or even spreading hoaxes well enough designed to be shared by other inattentive users.

A “hellish” platform

In a letter to advertisers last Thursday, the day of the acquisition, Elon Musk promised advertisers that Twitter would not become a “hell” platform where anything goes. But “Twitter was already hellish before Musk took control, and his actions (…) will only make things worse,” reacted Jessica Gonzalez, co-director of the NGO Free Press.

She fears that Twitter’s ability to moderate content will be diminished in the midst of an election, “when we know very well that social networks are drowned in misinformation and intimidation against minority voters”.

On Friday, a week after the $44 billion acquisition, Twitter laid off about 50% of its nearly 7,500 employees. According to internal sources, managers, marketing and design were among the categories of personnel most affected by the cuts.

Moderation teams maintained

Yoel Roth, the security manager on the site, wanted to be reassuring by tweeting that “most of the moderation capacities have remained in place”.

Content moderation teams have suffered only 15% departures, he said, and “frontline staff are the least affected”. He also assured that the daily volume of moderation actions had remained “stable” this week.

“Our efforts to support election integrity, including combating disinformation aimed at discouraging voting and foreign influence operations, remain a top priority,” he said.

A boss who relays conspiracy theories

Elon Musk advocates an absolute vision of freedom of expression. He may repeat that content moderation had not changed at Twitter and promise to form a council dedicated to this task, he struggles to convince his detractors.

Especially when he relays disinformation, like when he retweeted a conspiracy theory on Sunday about the assault on the husband of Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in Congress. He himself deleted his message afterwards. “Elon Musk bought a machine that spreads lies around the world,” Joe Biden said on Friday during a campaign meeting.

A Montclair State University study concluded that Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter had “created the perception for extremist users that restrictions would be relaxed”. A coalition of around 60 associations, including Free Press, on Friday called on advertisers to boycott the platform until it pledges to be “a safe place”.

Subsequently, it was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk who expressed his concerns, writing an open letter on Saturday asking Elon Musk to ensure that these rights are respected on social media.

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