Just how ready is Twitter to handle the likely deluge of new election disinformation after Tuesday’s U.S. midterm elections? According to one recent exec, it’s not looking good.
On Monday afternoon, Twitter’s now-ex head of product management in charge of civic integrity, Edward Perez, told Fast Company in a live interview via Twitter that the crisis point for Twitter may come post-midterms, especially when many Republicans are gearing up to further proclaim a rigged election if things don’t go their party’s way.
In his position, Perez oversaw the team that dealt with disinformation as well as violent or extremist content on the platform. He was there for a full year from September 2021 to September 2022, just before Elon Musk finalized his purchase of the company. He experienced his fair share of covid misinformation and 2020 election deniers, and he said that Musk’s recent decision to ax 50% of its employees, including multiple ethics teams, may do a lot of harm in the near future.
Perez, who is in charge of election technology research for the OSET Institute—a nonprofit that wants to build confidence in U.S. elections—called efforts to decry the legitimacy of the 2020 election “manufactured chaos,” further adding that those same tactics are already in store for the 2022 midterms. A majority of GOP candidates have questioned the legitimacy or have outright denied President Joe Biden’s victory two years ago, and several of those folks are gunning for secretary of state positions that have the power to impact future U.S. elections.
“There will almost certainly be allegations of irregularities in the election without any evidence to support it,” he said. Perez added there will be more claims that the voting technology did not work properly as well as more legal wrangling to get certain ballots or entire election results overturned.”
It remains unclear just how much of Perez’ team are still in their positions, though he said “some really important people” still remain, even though the chaos those layoffs caused are going to deeply impact the company moving into the next few weeks, he said. Perez also told Wired he was concerned that all the focus on Musk’s tirades have only distracted from the literal elephant in the room, that being the role Twitter will play after Tuesday. Further, he said Musk does not fully understand “the degree of social responsibility that rests on his shoulders” regarding the potential for political harm and political violence.
“There are not infinite resources, and they don’t have infinite numbers of personnel either, which is why something like crushing layoffs just days before an election and this environment can potentially be so worrisome,” Perez said to Fast Company.
Musk’s near-two week tenure at Twitter has already been rocky. There were early reports the content moderation team was stymied in their work as the billionaire settled into his new position. There was a rash of hate speech on the platform as Musk closed the deal, as if in anticipation of the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” making it a free-for-all. Then on Monday, the day before the majority of U.S. voters were set to cast their ballots, Musk pinned a tweet reading: “To independent-minded voters: Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic.”
In further tweets, Musk claimed he agrees “with some Democrat and some Republican policies, but not all,” though he’s not shy about proclaiming himself voting for Republicans as of late. He’s certainly caught a lot more flak from Democratic politicians like Biden, and Republicans sure do seem to enjoy Musk’s thoughts about “free speech” AKA, saying whatever you want—no matter how wrong—without repercussion.
Of course, Musk is nothing if not hypocritical. Since he’s bought the platform, he’s banned parody accounts of himself despite recently claiming “comedy is now legal” on Twitter. Back in April, when the world’s richest man started this whole Twitter drama, he said “For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.” One could argue that the Twitter owner is simply sharing his own opinion, but by pinning it on his page, he’s effectively become Twitter’s main figurehead and spokesperson who’s also now stumping for Republicans.
And while he claimed that sharing power is a must for a stable democracy, it ignores the fact that over half of the Republican candidates in both congressional and state elections have claimed there was something iffy about the 2020 election, even though all these claims have been provably unfounded.
Will a last minute endorsement by the biggest twit cause any votes to shift? Perhaps not, but it certainly fogs up an otherwise extremely grubby window into how Twitter might handle a new wave of election disinformation.