Brands beware: Musk’s Twitter will be a cesspool of disinformation and hate
All brands should pause engagement on Twitter immediately, writes Bread & Law founder Andrew Graham. Here’s why.
Pop quiz: you, I and some other friends are having a drink at happy hour. Three historical figures stroll into the bar. We’re not going to name names here, but just say the three are a serial killer, a terrorist and a prolific racist.
Assume that everybody in the bar is physically safe. It’s just that those historical figures who just joined our conversation are permitted to talk – to talk, say, about who in the bar they believe deserves to die and why – and nobody’s there to make them shut the hell up. They’re just there to ruin our evening, for whatever reason.
Is the quality of our conversation better with those added … uhhh, ’opinions’ and ’views’? Or does it suck, so we all go to the bar across the street, which has the same drinks but a “No But Really, No Serial Killers Are Allowed Here” sign out front and continue on with our evening?
OK, sure, this is hyperbole, but it’s also not really a joke. At least, it’s not a ha-ha joke with a punchline.
The point here is obvious. Inviting bigots, trolls and grifters into a conversation doesn’t help the quality of that conversation, it harms it. And this is both a ridiculous thing to talk about and one that really does need to be talked about right now, since Elon Musk finally owns Twitter.
Since the acquisition closed last Thursday, the world’s richest person has been hard at work reportedly planning to fire most everyone and amplifying disinformation about an incident where a Trump supporter fractured the skull of a congressperson’s husband with a hammer. Between Musk’s poor leadership and public wingnuttery, which are not worth fixating on in columns like this, lies a revealing admission in an open letter he released to advertisers, which absolutely is.
“In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all,“ he wrote.
Read it again: “...our platform must be warm and welcoming to all.“
No, Elon, it absolutely must not be “warm and welcoming” to those who are transparently racist, xenophobic and misogynistic. Twitter users should not be expected to tolerate dehumanizing hate speech, which is unacceptable but entirely legal under the laws and regulations of most countries, and brands should not be expected to absorb the reputational risk that those users create.
Another big tell: Musk is trial-ballooning a new “content moderation council,” which he says would be made up of people with “diverse viewpoints” – perhaps such as, and I’m just spitballing here, a couple of people who don’t say vaccines cause autism and a couple of people who do. “But why can’t a user doxx a reporter and her family?” I can just imagine a Republican operative installed as a member of this so-called moderation council asking Musk, as he sits and nods in agreement.
Here’s the problem. Musk seems to fundamentally not understand the core objective of disinformation, which is frequently expressed as bigotry and hate speech but framed as "joking,” or “pushing the envelope.“ It (usually but not always) isn’t meant to change opinions or turn people on to bigotry. It (usually but not always) is meant to just get in the way; to exhaust and demoralize a broad audience, repeatedly and at scale.
The tactic, in the words of the renowned professional troll Steve Bannon, is to “flood the zone with shit.“ That’s who’s coming back to Twitter. Those who produce unbelievable amounts of shit with which to flood that zone.
In Musk’s rendering of it, we’re all just too sensitive to speech we don’t like or ideas we don’t agree with, and we need some good, old-fashioned dissent to get the sticks out of our asses or the blinders off our eyes or whatever other metaphor he’d use. This, broadly, is the snake oil that the privileged “the solution to bad speech is more speech” crowd has been selling for years, as hate, toxicity and disinformation has nevertheless grown to dominate online environments for many. Folks who use social networks to stay aware of what’s going on in the world or to maintain personal and business connections aren’t sensitive to hate speech and disinformation so much as they’re exhausted by it. There’s a big difference.
Musk can continue to claim Musk Twitter will be the most respected forum in the world and make vague gestures in the direction of civility, but unless he goes back on his promise to avoid permanent bans as a punishment for disinformation and hate, the message is clear: hate will have a home on Twitter.
This should alarm big Twitter advertisers such as Nestle, Verizon, and Disney. And it is why brands should do more than review all Twitter ad spending eventually. It’s why they should pause all engagement on Twitter immediately.
Andrew Graham is founder and head of strategy at Bread & Law, a public relations agency in New York City.