‘We know bad things are going to happen,’ with Musk and Twitter

Researchers fear political rancor Twitter has tried to address will explode

Elon Musk is on the social network he’s trying to buy, saying politically divisive things, and suddenly it feels a lot like 2016.

But this may be worse, experts say, and the impact on San Francisco may be enormous.

“Unlike Trump, he’s a real billionaire. He’s got real money he can throw around, as we’re seeing. And he’s smart,” says David Kirsch, a University of Maryland associate professor of business.

Kirsch researched a decade’s worth of Tesla-related tweets to find a correlation between pro-Tesla bots and bumps in Tesla stock prices, as well as insights into Musk’s use of Twitter.

“Musk’s Twitter activity constitutes a novel tool for corporate engagement mobilization and polarization,” Kirsch writes in a working copy of the research being presented at a conference in June. “While Musk’s deft use of Twitter delighted and engaged the fanboys, the techniques employed also mobilized a subset of Twitter users to challenge and oppose Musk, leading to polarization.”

Twitter, and one might argue many parts of America, have worked to address hate speech and other forms of polarization since former President Donald Trump made them a political tool.

“A policy unit inside of Twitter over the last couple of years was sort of focused on trying to tamp down some of the extremism, reduce some of the really harmful trolling and create more healthy conversations,” Kirsch says, referring to Twitter’s Healthy Conversations program.

Twitter declined to comment on recent political activity on the platform but said it is monitoring for any potential use of bots or manipulation.

Here is one of Musk’s political tweets over the past several days — since his attempt to buy Twitter was accepted by the company:

Despite Musk jabbing at both ends of the political spectrum and tossing out a plea for “more love,” the tweets have released a cascade of partisan bickering, which is always on Twitter but may not have been so concentrated on one account since Trump was kicked off the platform in early 2021.

“Everything I hear from Elon Musk” leads to one conclusion,” Kirsch says. “We know bad things are going to happen.”

And here’s why this matters even more to San Francisco than anywhere else. Our city is a punching bag for right-wing vitriol on Twitter and elsewhere. Earlier this month Musk mused, in a now-deleted tweet, about turning the Twitter building on Market Street into a homeless shelter. He has speculated in fast and loose opinions on Twitter about other changes to the company. There is widespread speculation that he could move the company to Texas, as he suddenly did Tesla after an angry outburst on Twitter.

We are not a rich guy’s meme. A large community of the tech industry lives here. The Twitter building helped to rejuvenate a neighborhood. Real people work there. Those people worked very hard to repair damage from a powerful businessman who promoted his own interests by throwing out bombastic tweets that sparked identity-politics flame wars. If this is how we are going into the Musk era of Twitter, some say more political issues may lie ahead.

“What’s going to happen?” asks Christopher Bouzy, founder of the Twitter analysis company Bot Sentinel, who has tracked an influx of newly created accounts pouring into the accounts of right-wing politicians including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis since Twitter accepted Musk’s acquisition.

“It’s really concerning,” Bouzy says. “We have mid-terms coming up. Imagine a million new accounts tweeting about election fraud. It could be worse than 2016.”

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