Musk’s embrace of conspiracies tests how low Twitter can sink

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People trying to track the intellectual and moral deterioration of Twitter under its new owner, Elon Musk, have gotten a few more data points to work with in recent days.

On Sunday, Musk signed on to the right wing’s campaigns against Dr. Anthony Fauci, the highly respected infectious disease expert whose role in the battle against the HIV and COVID-19 viruses may have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.

“My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” Musk tweeted Sunday.

When former astronaut Scott Kelly (the twin brother of Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona) upbraided Musk for not only attacking a “dedicated public servant” but mocking the practice among LGBTQ individuals and others of posting their preferred pronouns online and in emails, Musk doubled down.

“Forcing your pronouns upon others when they didn’t ask…is neither good nor kind to anyone,” he tweeted back. “As for Fauci, he lied to Congress and funded gain-of-function research that killed millions of people.”

Neither of those assertions about Fauci has been shown to be true, though they’re articles of faith among bloviating right-wingers such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The day before, Musk had falsely accused Yoel Roth, the former head of Twitter’s trust and safety team, of advocating allowing children to access adult material online. He did so by selectively and misleadingly quoting from Roth’s 2016 PhD thesis at the University of Pennsylvania.

The charge that gay individuals such as Roth are implicated in child sexual abuse is a homophobic slur out of the playbook of the conspiracy movement QAnon.

The claim has been picked up by far-right figures such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who used it against California state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who is gay, posting a tweet calling him a “communist groomer” within days of getting her Twitter account restored by Musk.

Roth and his family have reportedly been forced to leave their home to avoid a torrent of threats and abuse following Musk’s tweet.

Musk also has bought into claims by opponents of broad-based public health policies aimed at combating the pandemic that they have been “censored” by social media platforms, including Twitter.

On Dec. 10 Musk met with Stanford medical professor Jay Bhattacharya, who has asserted in a federal lawsuit and on Twitter that the Biden administration coerced social media firms to “blacklist” him in violation of his 1st Amendment rights.

In a tweet following their meeting, Bhattacharya praised Musk for establishing a new Twitter “where transparency and free speech rule.” (He didn’t respond to my request for more details of the meeting.)

Gideon Lichfield, the editor in chief of Wired, argued Tuesday that the media’s Musk obsession distracts us from more important questions about “Twitter’s role in the world — its importance to natural-disaster management or to any number of communities for whom it’s a store of social wealth” in favor of a fixation on how much money the platform — that is, Musk — will lose.

Lichfield’s point was that the attention paid to Musk resembled that paid to Donald Trump’s outrageous behavior during his presidency, which obscured the deeper damage Trump’s acolytes were doing to government policies and the rule of law.

Yet that won’t do. Musk has far more influence over Twitter than Trump had over the federal government. As Twitter’s undisputed owner, Musk gets no pushback from inside the platform.

His endorsements of conspiracy theories amplify those false narratives and give them credibility among many of his 120 million Twitter followers and 200 million-plus users, including the 13% of Americans who say they regularly get their news from Twitter.

On Monday, Musk abruptly dissolved the platform’s independent Trust and Safety Council, which advised executives on moderation policies.

On Tuesday, the watchdog group Media Matters for America and the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD reported that the anti-LGBTQ slur “groomers” has soared since Musk’s takeover, with right-wing and anti-LGBTQ accounts he restored accounting for a huge share of the increase.

Musk may defend his lenience toward hatefulness as a victory for free speech, but the question is: Free speech for whom? Those who have tried to craft effective online moderation policies do so because noxious and vicious attacks and invective don’t encourage more open discussion, but drive thoughtful participants out of the discussion.

If Musk continues down this road, Twitter won’t be a beacon of free speech, but a miasmic, malodorous swamp.

How much lower can Musk’s Twitter sink? Those who argue that Musk is striving to remake the platform into a successful business seem confident that he knows something we don’t know. The question is: Do we want to know?

Michael Hiltzik is a Los Angeles Times columnist. ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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