NEW YORK – Two years ago, signing a bill intended to punish Twitter and other major social media companies, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blasted the platforms as "suppressing ideas” during the COVID-19 pandemic and silencing conservative voices.
What a turnaround.
The new Elon Musk-owned version of Twitter helped DeSantis launch his bid for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday. Though it was marred by technical glitches and skewered by the candidate's critics, the forum nevertheless underscored Twitter's unmistakable shift to the right under Musk, who bought it for $44 billion and took over in October.
“The truth was censored repeatedly, and now that Twitter is in the hands of a free speech advocate, that would not be able to happen again on this Twitter platform,” DeSantis said during the Twitter Spaces event.
Musk, co-hosting the event, responded to the praise by saying, “Twitter was indeed expensive, but free speech is priceless.”
While Musk has promoted his platform as a haven for free expression, the site has been flooded with extremist views and hate speech since he bought it and fired or laid off roughly 80% of its staff.
That is raising alarms that Twitter — heavily used by candidates and government agencies, including those providing voting information — will become an open forum for conspiracy theories, fake content and election misinformation as a bitterly divided country heads into the 2024 presidential election.
Many Republicans have hailed Musk's takeover of Twitter as creating one of the last mainstream online spaces where they can share their views without fear of removal. Prominent figures in conservative media, like former Fox News host Tucker Carlson and the podcasts hosts of The Daily Wire, say they plan to start streaming content on the site.
Democrats and anti-hate watchdogs, meanwhile, say Musk's partisan comments and policy changes have effectively given a megaphone to far-right extremists.
Since Musk bought Twitter, he has overhauled the site’s verification system, removing safeguards against impersonation for some government accounts and political candidates. He also has personally indulged in far-right conspiracy theories on the site, reinstated accounts with a history of extremist rhetoric and gutted the team that had been responsible for moderating the content flowing across the platform.
That has coincided with a deluge of conspiracy theory rhetoric, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which reported that QAnon hashtags surged 91% on Twitter between May 2022 and May 2023, with about three-fourths of those messages posted after Musk's takeover.
Several believers of the baseless QAnon theory, centered on the idea that former President Donald Trump is waging a secret war against “deep state” enemies and pedophiles, have committed acts of violence, including the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Musk’s decision to reinstate influential Twitter accounts with a history of spreading extremist views also has created spaces in their tweet reply threads where users are sharing antisemitic tropes, conspiracy theories and other types of hate, the ADL reported Wednesday.
The group's vice president Yael Eisenstat, who leads its Center for Technology and Society, said Musk’s content moderation choices have “served to silence marginalized voices” by giving harassers and internet trolls free reign.
“It is one thing to say we want free speech on the platform,” she said. “It’s another thing to say we are going to allow extremists — conspiracy theorists — to contribute to normalizing this kind of rhetoric and antisemitism and racism.”
Twitter didn’t provide comment after repeated requests. It sent automated replies instead, as it does to most media inquiries.
Musk's free speech rhetoric also has attracted conservatives who have been knocked off other platforms — or fired, in the case of Carlson.
Shortly after his ouster, Carlson went on Twitter May 9 to announce that he would be doing some version of his show on that platform. It’s still not clear what that would entail, or when he would start.
“There aren’t many platforms left that allow free speech,” Carlson said in a two-minute message viewed more than 132 million times. “The last big one remaining in the world, the only one, is Twitter, where we are now."
Free speech and truth aren’t the same thing, however, and Carlson had been accused of spreading misinformation on his Fox show, most recently about the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
DeSantis has been a frequent guest on Fox News, and on the night of his presidential campaign announcement he appeared on the network for an interview — after the Twitter event.
Though DeSantis' Twitter launch was severely delayed with site crashes and strained servers, his choice to debut his campaign on the platform illustrates that Fox will have more competition as a Republican kingmaker. His campaign said it had taken in $1 million online in the first hour after the announcement. Fox's ratings have declined dramatically during its 8 p.m. Eastern hour, which Carlson used to fill.
The Daily Wire, whose podcast hosts include popular conservative influencers such as Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, said Tuesday that it would bring its shows to stream on Twitter starting next week.
At the same time, Wednesday's botched live event with DeSantis calls into question whether Musk’s ambitions to turn Twitter into a destination for politicians, businesses and others to make big announcements is realistic. For one, only about half a million people listened to the DeSantis webcast. A similar announcement on television would attract millions of people.
The other snag: Twitter’s audience size. Less than a quarter of U.S. adults use Twitter, according to Pew Research Center, and most of them rarely tweet, if at all. The site’s most active users are power players, politicians, public figures and journalists, which raises doubts about whether Musk’s desire to reach voters directly, without traditional media as a go-between, can succeed.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former Republican National Committee communications director, said Twitter is “certainly going to be an increasing part” of GOP campaign strategies for the 2024 presidential primary.
“And that’s all because of what Elon Musk has said over the past few months as he’s taken Twitter over and sought to make it a space more friendly to conservatives,” he said.
Musk has leaned into Republican politics, tweeting in 2022 that Democrats “have become the party of division & hate.” While he has tweeted support for both DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who also entered the GOP field this week, he said Tuesday he was not yet endorsing any particular presidential candidate.
Even as Democrats wince at the direction Musk has taken Twitter, most are staying put — at least for now. A recent Pew survey found that when looking to the future, just slightly more Democratic users than Republicans said it's unlikely they will be on Twitter in a year.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said he has been experimenting with the Twitter alternative BlueSky as a “more casual, fun and positive environment” than Twitter. But he also has continued to use Twitter to communicate with his constituents.
Jimmy Williams, a longtime Democratic political consultant, said he would advise Democrats not to “cede the space.” Indeed, Musk said Wednesday that his forum would be available to any politician.
“Twitter's a two-way street," Williams said.
Associated Press technology writer Barbara Ortutay in San Francisco and media writer David Bauder in New York contributed to this report.
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