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40 Justice and Watchdog Groups Urge Twitter Advertisers to Hold Musk to Account

The groups warned that the advertisers could be aiding right-wing extremism if they don’t pull funding.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk gives interviews as he arrives at the Offshore Northern Seas 2022 meeting in Stavanger, Norway, on August 29, 2022.

Dozens of justice and watchdog groups are urging top Twitter advertisers to use their influence over the website to urge new CEO Elon Musk to embrace content moderation or threaten to pull their funding if he doesn’t.

In a letter to 20 top advertisers, 40 groups warn that, while Musk has promised advertisers he won’t turn the website into a “free-for-all hellscape,” his actions have indicated otherwise.

The letter was signed by groups like Media Matters for America, Public Citizen, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Center for Transgender Equality, and others. They say that Musk’s promises to advertisers “in no way accurately portray his plans for Twitter,” and that if he carries out even a fraction of what he has pledged for supposed “free speech” on the platform, “then Twitter will not and can not be a safe platform for brands.”

“Within 24 hours of Musk taking ownership, the platform was inundated with hate and disinformation. Not only are extremists celebrating Musk’s takeover of Twitter, they are seeing it as a new opportunity to post the most abusive, harassing, and racist language and imagery,” the letter reads. “This includes clear threats of violence against people with whom they disagree.”

Indeed, hateful tweets flooded the platform just hours after Musk’s takeover, as right-wing users feel they can freely tweet slurs, attack LGBTQ people and glorify Nazism with Musk in charge. Meanwhile, in one of his first posts on Twitter after obtaining the company, Musk tweeted a false right-wing conspiracy theory about the attack on Paul Pelosi, amplifying it to an even wider audience.

“Without deliberate efforts by Twitter to address this type of abuse and hate, your brands will be actively supporting accelerating extremism,” the groups wrote.

Musk, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist,” has already taken steps to overhaul content moderation on the platform — which, while flawed, has worked in removing abusive and misleading content in the past. Since obtaining the company, Musk has fired Twitter’s top content moderation chief, and the team that oversees content has reportedly been blocked from accessing their moderation tools, rendering them unable to penalize accounts that violate Twitter’s hate speech policies.

As social media websites have learned over and over again throughout the years, content moderation is key to attracting advertisers; typically, advertisers don’t like seeing their promoted content sandwiched between hateful posts and racist slurs.

At the same time, advertising makes up a vast majority of Twitter’s revenue — so advertisers can have massive influence over how the website is run, if they so choose. The groups urge the advertisers to use this power to “notify Musk and publicly commit that you will cease all advertising on Twitter globally if he follows through on his plans to undermine brand safety and community standards including gutting content moderation.”

“Elon Musk has consistently failed to comprehend that freedom of speech does not mean freedom to abuse and that online spaces should be safe for women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups,” Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, one of the letter signatories, said in a statement.

In recent days, Musk has proposed making users pay for verification on the platform, floating plans to charge $20 a month for the blue checkmark and then later $8 after the initial idea was met with widespread backlash. He has postured as though the idea is a tool to equalize the platform; in reality, however, it’s likely aimed at creating an alternative profit stream, though it’s questionable as to how much money this would actually bring in.

Ironically, he has also promised that paid users would get search and reply priority, which means that their posts would be shown more than those of unpaid users — a move that would only further solidify the disparities between users who can afford to pay about $100 a year for the service and users who cannot.

The plan was widely mocked by Twitter users. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) expressed scorn for the idea, laughing “at a billionaire earnestly trying to sell people on the idea that ‘free speech’ is actually a $8/mo subscription plan,” she wrote on the website on Tuesday.

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