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Twitter Neutrality Called Into Question as Elon Musk Posts Partisan Tweets Ahead of US Midterm Elections

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Elon Musk used his Twitter megaphone to appeal to “independent-minded voters” on Monday, urging them to vote Republican in Tuesday’s US midterm elections and stepping into the country’s political debate that tech company executives have largely tried to stay out of — so their platforms wouldn’t be seen as favouring one side over the other.

Musk, who bought Twitter for $44 billion (roughly Rs. 3,37,465 crore), has expressed political views in the past, on and off the platform. But a direct endorsement of one party over another now that he owns it raises questions about Twitter’s ability to remain neutral under the rule of the world’s richest man.

“Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic,” Musk tweeted.

It’s one thing for the CEO of Wendy’s or Chick-fil-A to endorse a political party, said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor at Syracuse University who studies social media and politics. It’s a whole other thing, though, for the owner of one of the world’s most high-profile information ecosystems to do so.

“These social media platforms are not just companies. It’s not just a business. It is also our digital public sphere. It’s our town square,” Stromer-Galley said. “And it feels like the public sphere is increasingly privatised and owned by these companies — and when the heads of these companies put their finger on the scale — it feels like it’s potentially skewing our democracy in harmful ways.”

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Musk’s comments come as he seeks to remake the company and amid widespread concern that recent mass layoffs at the social media platform could leave the company unable to deal with hate speech, misinformation that could impact voter safety and security and actors who seek to cast doubt on the legitimate winners of elections. Though Musk has vowed not to let Twitter become a “free-for-all hellscape,” advertisers have left the platform and Musk himself has amplified misinformation.

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It’s not a secret that when it comes to tech workers and executives, the political mix tends to favour the left, with a good amount of Silicon Valley libertarianism thrown in. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, has donated to candidates on both sides of the political spectrum, but in recent years he’s veered more toward Democrats. Publicly he’s stayed away from pledging allegiance to either party.

But in their platform policies and content moderation, tech companies such as Facebook (now Meta), Google and even Twitter have taken great pains to appear politically neutral, even as they are routinely criticised — largely by conservatives but also by liberals — for favouring one side over the other.

“Now, you might say, look, Rupert Murdoch owns Fox News and that’s his voice amplified,” said Charles Anthony Smith, a professor of political science and law at The University of California at Irvine. “But the difference is that gets filtered through a variety of different script writers and on-air personalities and all this other sort of stuff. So it’s not really Rupert Murdoch. It may be people that agree with him on things, but it’s filtered through other voices. This is an unadulterated direct contact. So it’s an amplification that is unrivaled.”

Musk’s tweets could also stir up trouble in global politics outside of the US elections. On Sunday, the billionaire signalled willingness to explore reversing decisions blocking some accounts of Brazilian right-wing lawmakers. The nation’s electoral court last week ordered their suspension; all are supporters of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who on October 30 lost his reelection bid by a narrow margin, and most had aired claims of election fraud.

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Paulo Figueiredo Filho, a political analyst who often defends Bolsonaro on social media and is also the grandson of the military dictatorship’s final president, tweeted that Twitter has become a strict and spontaneous censor.

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“Your moderators are currently being more dictatorial than our own courts!” Figueiredo wrote.

Musk responded: “I will look into this.”

The suspended accounts include that of Nikolas Ferreira, who garnered more votes in the October race than any other candidate for a seat in the Lower House. According to orders issued by the electoral authority, Ferreira’s account and most others were blocked for sharing a live video from an Argentinian digital influencer questioning the reliability of Brazil’s electronic voting system. The video was largely shared by allies of Bolsonaro, who himself has often claimed the system is susceptible to fraud, without presenting any evidence.

Twitter’s policies, as of Monday, prohibit “manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes.”

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In a tweet just two days after he agreed to buy Twitter in April, Musk said that for “Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.”

And to attract the largest possible number of advertisers and users, Big Tech has tried to go this route, with varying degrees of success. For years, it managed to succeed. But the 2016 US presidential elections changed online discourse, fueling the country’s increased political polarisation.

In early 2016, a tech blog quoted an anonymous former Facebook contractor who said the site downplayed news that conservatives are interested in and artificially boosted liberal issues such as the “BlackLivesMatter” hashtag. The blog did not name the person, and no evidence was provided for their claim.

But in the explosive political climate that preceded the election of former President Donald Trump, the claim quickly took a life of its own. There was plenty of media coverage, as well as inquiries from GOP lawmakers, then, later, congressional hearings on the matter. In the years since, as social media companies began to crack down on far-right accounts and conspiracy theories such as QAnon, some conservatives have come to see it as evidence of the platforms’ bias.

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Musk himself is at least listening to such claims, and he’s repeatedly engaged with figures on the right and far right who would like to see a loosening of Twitter’s misinformation and hate speech policies.

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Evidence suggests those voices are already being heard. In an October study, for instance, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that “Twitter gives greater visibility to politically conservative news than it does content with a liberal bent.”

Musk’s tweet garnered hundreds of thousands of likes and many retweets Monday on the day before the final votes are cast in thousands of races around the country. But in replies and retweets, many prominent (and not so prominent) Twitter personalities expressed criticism for the Tesla CEO — often poking fun at him. For Smith, that’s a sign Musk may not quite be a billionaire political kingmaker that some of his peers, like venture capitalist Peter Thiel, are aspiring to be.

“I wonder if we’re we’re having the emergence of a new type of billionaire, the ones who want to decide what happens and get credit for deciding what happens,” Smith said. “So this more like an oligarchy approach than the old school billionaires who would drop lots of money but then they didn’t want anybody to know their names.”


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Twitter Not Safer Under Elon Musk Leadership, Says Former Head of Trust and Safety

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Twitter’s former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth on Tuesday said the social media company was not safer under new owner Elon Musk, warning in his first interview since resigning this month that the company no longer had enough staff for safety work.

Roth had tweeted after Musk’s takeover that by some measures, Twitter safety had improved under the billionaire’s ownership.

Asked in an interview at the Knight Foundation conference on Tuesday whether he still felt that way, Roth said: “No.”

Roth was a Twitter veteran who helped steer the social media platform through several watershed decisions, including the move to permanently suspend its most famous user, former US President Donald Trump, last year.

His departure further rattled advertisers, many of whom backed away from Twitter after Musk laid off half of the staff, including many involved with content moderation.

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Before Musk assumed the helm at Twitter, about 2,200 people globally were focused on content moderation work, said Roth. He said he did not know the number after the acquisition because the corporate directory had been turned off.

Twitter under Musk began to stray from its adherence to written and publicly available policies toward content decisions made unilaterally by Musk, which Roth cited as a reason for his resignation.

“One of my limits was if Twitter starts being ruled by dictatorial edict rather than by policy … there’s no longer a need for me in my role, doing what I do,” he said.

The revamp of the Twitter Blue premium subscription, which would allow users to pay for a verified checkmark on their account, launched despite warnings and advice from the trust and safety team, Roth said.

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The launch was quickly beset by spammers impersonating major public companies such as Eli Lilly, Nestle and Lockheed Martin.

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Roth also said Tuesday that Twitter erred in restricting the dissemination of a New York Post article that made claims about then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son shortly before the 2020 presidential election.

But he defended Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Trump for risk of further incitement of violence after the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

“We saw the clearest possible example of what it looked like for things to move from online to off,” Roth said. “We saw people dead in the Capitol.”

Musk tweeted on November 19 that Trump’s account would be reinstated after a slim majority voted in favour of the move in a surprise Twitter poll.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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WhatsApp Update Allows Users to Include Caption While Forwarding Media on iOS: All Details

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WhatsApp has begun rolling out a feature that will let iOS users forward media with captions. Previously, users had to send a caption as a separate message, when forwarding media. Now when iPhone owners using WhatsApp forward media, the app will include original caption, which can be manually removed. The feature is available in the latest version of the app on the App Store, as per details shared by a feature tracker.

According to a report by feature tracker WABetaInfo, WhatsApp users on iOS will be able to forward images, videos, GIFs, and documents, along with the original caption. The report includes a screengrab of the improved forwarding process, explaining that users will see a new view at the bottom of the screen when users select a media to forward, which can be tapped to add a caption.

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A WhatsApp screenshot showing the included media caption when forwarding a message

Photo Credit: WABetaInfo

Additionally, WhatsApp has also added a dismiss button that you can use to remove the caption from the image before forwarding the message, which could come in handy if you don’t want to include the original caption. It is worth noting that the captions shared with the forwarded media files will always be end-to-end encrypted.

The Meta-owned service continues to improve its messaging app with new features and updates. Recently, WhatsApp introduced a new feature called “Message Yourself” that allows users on iOS and Android to send messages to themselves, or forward messages to themselves. The feature is designed to help users store messages, files, and other media in an easily accessible location, and users can also forward messages from other chats, or share content from other apps directly to WhatsApp.

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Meanwhile, WhatsApp is reportedly working on a feature that will let Android users export and import their chat backups offline from Google Drive. The feature is said to provide access to the full chat history, images, videos, and other media files. The feature was first spotted in development back in June, but the company is yet to announce plans to roll out the feature on Android or iOS devices. 

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Twitter Stops Enforcing COVID-19 Misinformation Policy, Experts Express Concerns Over False Claims

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Twitter will no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation, raising concerns among public health experts and social media researchers that the change could have serious consequences if it discourages vaccination and other efforts to combat the still-spreading virus.

Eagle-eyed users spotted the change Monday night, noting that a one-sentence update had been made to Twitter’s online rules: “Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy.”

By Tuesday, some Twitter accounts were testing the new boundaries and celebrating the platform’s hands-off approach, which comes after Twitter was purchased by Elon Musk.

“This policy was used to silence people across the world who questioned the media narrative surrounding the virus and treatment options,” tweeted Dr. Simone Gold, a physician and leading purveyor of COVID-19 misinformation. “A win for free speech and medical freedom!”

Twitter’s decision to no longer remove false claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines disappointed public health officials, however, who said it could lead to more false claims about the virus, or the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

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“Bad news,” tweeted epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who urged people not to flee Twitter but to keep up the fight against bad information about the virus. “Stay folks — do NOT cede the town square to them!”

While Twitter’s efforts to stop false claims about COVID weren’t perfect, the company’s decision to reverse course is an abdication of its duty to its users, said Paul Russo, a social media researcher and dean of the Katz School of Science and Health at Yeshiva University in New York.

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Russo added that it’s the latest of several recent moves by Twitter that could ultimately scare away some users and even advertisers. Some big names in business have already paused their ads on Twitter over questions about its direction under Musk.

“It is 100% the responsibility of the platform to protect its users from harmful content,” Russo said. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”

The virus, meanwhile, continues to spread. Nationally, new COVID cases averaged nearly 38,800 a day as of Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University — far lower than last winter but a vast undercount because of reduced testing and reporting. About 28,100 people with COVID were hospitalized daily and about 313 died, according to the most recent federal daily averages.

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Cases and deaths were up from two weeks earlier. Yet a fifth of the U.S. population hasn’t been vaccinated, most Americans haven’t gotten the latest boosters, and many have stopped wearing masks.

Musk, who has himself spread COVID misinformation on Twitter, has signalled an interest in rolling back many of the platform’s previous rules meant to combat misinformation.

Last week, Musk said he would grant “amnesty” to account holders who had been kicked off Twitter. He’s also reinstated the accounts for several people who spread COVID misinformation, including that of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose personal account was suspended this year for repeatedly violating Twitter’s COVID rules.

Greene’s most recent tweets include ones questioning the effectiveness of masks and making baseless claims about the safety of COVID vaccines.

Since the pandemic began, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have struggled to respond to a torrent of misinformation about the virus, its origins and the response to it.

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Under the policy enacted in January 2020, Twitter prohibited false claims about COVID-19 that the platform determined could lead to real-world harms. More than 11,000 accounts were suspended for violating the rules, and nearly 100,000 pieces of content were removed from the platform, according to Twitter’s latest numbers.

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Despite its rules prohibiting COVID misinformation, Twitter has struggled with enforcement. Posts making bogus claims about home remedies or vaccines could still be found, and it was difficult on Tuesday to identify exactly how the platform’s rules may have changed.

Messages left with San Francisco-based Twitter seeking more information about its policy on COVID-19 misinformation were not immediately returned Tuesday.

A search for common terms associated with COVID misinformation on Tuesday yielded lots of misleading content, but also automatic links to helpful resources about the virus as well as authoritative sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, said Tuesday that the problem of COVID-19 misinformation is far larger than one platform, and that policies prohibiting COVID misinformation weren’t the best solution anyway.

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Speaking at a Knight Foundation forum Tuesday, Jha said misinformation about the virus spread for a number of reasons, including legitimate uncertainty about a deadly illness. Simply prohibiting certain kinds of content isn’t going to help people find good information, or make them feel more confident about what they’re hearing from their medical providers, he said.

“I think we all have a collective responsibility,” Jha said of combating misinformation about COVID. “The consequences of not getting this right — of spreading that misinformation — is literally tens of thousands of people dying unnecessarily.”


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