Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter is dangerous. This may seem like an exaggeration but in the days following Musk’s takeover, he has asserted his control by interfering directly with the policies. He has stripped back moderators and controls on free speech, and the platform has been flooded with waves of misinformation, conspiracy theories and various outpourings of racist rhetoric. According to research being done by the Network Contagion Research Institute, since the takeover, there have been around 5000 tweets an hour containing the word ‘jew’ and the vast majority of these are deeply antisemetic. This is in part due to Musk’s promises to reduce content moderation on the platform as well as providing ‘amnesty’ for those whose accounts were blocked. We have seen first hand the effects of misinformation on social media- it leads to the rise of far right and dangerous conspiracy theories. One only needs to look at the effects of rumours and their easy spread during the pandemic, as lies were spread about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, as well as the need for quarantines and the cause of covid, all of which led to further spread of the deadly disease and caused many further deaths than would have been caused otherwise. 

Musk’s own actions on Twitter have been equally dangerous. Even while in the middle of his negotiations to take ownership of Twitter, he raised tensions and exacerbated difficult and dangerous international relations in conflict zones. Musk presented, via Twitter, two resolutions that he felt would solve the conflict in Ukraine and in Taiwan. Neither was a fair or righteous solution and both utterly disregarded the will of the people in those regions or the decades of history that are involved in these decisions. In fact, his terms only served to fuel the anger of those affected by the conflicts, particularly, as is also important to note, on both occasions he supported the side of the aggressive, expansionist, dictatorial regime. He has also revoked Trump’s ban on Twitter. This is also potentially dangerous, as Trump was banned for spreading misinformation. Allowing Trump access to such a large platform once more is a perilous idea, as it puts the country at risk of further insurrection and attempts to undermine democracy.

Social media can be a force for good but equally not. Social media platforms are not unbiased, as companies have their own vested interests and decide what is transmitted via the platform through their own rules and algorithms to decide who can read and see what information. One of the greatest risks of this is that once someone has been exposed to a certain kind of information, an echo chamber effect is created, so people are fed a stream of similar information, with no recourse to an alternative view, thus blocking out any rational debate. This leads to confirmation bias, in which people begin to actively search out information that they agree with and avoid information which challenges their views. This is made more dangerous by the easy spread of fake news on social media platforms such as the ‘stolen election’ myth in the US. Trump used his platform on Twitter to spread lies to his followers which culminated in insurrection in the Capitol and a concerted effort to overthrow the democratically elected government. To those who do not follow right wing media or right-wing groups on social media, this was a shocking and completely unexpected moment, but to those who consume right wing media it was steadily being built up over the course of several months and the signs were there all along. That it was never realised by people on the left, is a direct result of this confirmation bias that exists in social media, and a clear demonstration of the negative impacts of social media on democracy. Musk’s refusal to police such fake news is dangerous and is yet another example of the potentially devastating effects of his takeover.

Although many people credit social media for bringing together social revolutions such as the Arab Spring, one must be clear that it is not the only tool. Nor has it been wholly successful in ensuring democracy or cultural freedoms- in fact the Middle East has been marked by increased instability and oppression. It is good at sowing the seeds of political action but not at sustaining it. Between 2000 and 2014, there were 25 breakdowns of democracy. 

Harassment on social media has also become more prevalent as anonymous accounts allow trolls to slander others and spread fear mongering. This can have fatal consequences, such as in India, where Whatsapp had to take steps to limit the number of messages being forwarded to less than 5 people after it came to light that the app was used to forward vigilante messages which led to around 24 people being lynched in the space of six months.

This is partly because social media allows small fringe groups a stronger presence than they would have in the real world, and so can make them seem like the majority, thereby allowing them to influence decisions and exert force within the political spectrum. 

Social media cannot function as a platform on its own- it needs a moderator and a guiding hand to ensure that misinformation does not prevail. Some may claim that moderation limits the fundamental human right of freedom of speech yet they disregard the truth that freedom of speech is only ever permitted insofar as it doesn’t become hate speech. And this is a thin line to walk. What is to one person a declaration of truth and their personal beliefs, is to another hateful, racist rhetoric that can be deeply harmful. 

Social media has the potential to be deeply damaging to democracy, since it is rife with misinformation and conspiracy theories and perfectly designed to facilitate the quick spread of these. Musk’s takeover of Twitter sets a precedent of stripping away all moderation and control on social media platforms, which will have dangerous consequences for our society.