Elon Musk promised to make Twitter the “most accurate source of information about the world”. However, he has repeatedly used his own account to amplify false claims from some of the most notorious disinformers on the internet, according to an analysis of his online activity.
The posts show Musk drawing attention to misinformation about everything from the war in Ukraine to the attack on US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s husband. Last week, the billionaire boosted a tweet that wrongly suggested doctors misdiagnosed flu cases as Covid-19 deaths.
An account called ‘KanekoaTheGreat’, which has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory, posted:
To this, Musk replied: “Good question.”
It was one of at least 40 times the billionaire replied to the profile since purchasing Twitter for $44 billion nearly six months ago. He has only replied to a handful of accounts more in that time.
Using data from PolitiTweet, a website that tracked public figures’ posts until Twitter cut off its access, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reviewed thousands of replies Musk published between late October and March.
He shared a fabricated CNN segment, called a made-up quote “wise words”, and falsely claimed police escorted a rioter through the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Additionally, he amplified a post blaming mass shootings on LGBTQ individuals, and endorsed a fake casualty count from Ukraine.
Musk has also downplayed Covid-19 and promoted spurious claims about vaccines causing blood clots, miscarriages, and heart problems.
Replying to a tweet that listed Covid-19 and vaccine safety among the “biggest media lies”, the Twitter owner said in March:
We are running out of ‘conspiracies’ that turned out to be true!
Days later, he tweeted that the:
best way to fight misinformation is to respond with accurate information.
Experts say Musk’s activity is concerning – and not just because of his online influence.
Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College professor who studies misperceptions in politics, told AFP:
Musk has almost 135 million Twitter followers and forced his engineers to increase the reach of his tweets, so we should worry when he spreads misinformation.
I’m most worried, though, about what these tweets reveal about the judgment of the person who determines the policies of a major social media platform.
Since his takeover, Musk has reinstated suspended accounts and overhauled verification practices. Researchers have tied these recent policy changes, among others, to spikes in misinformation.
NewsGuard, a company that assesses websites’ credibility, found that accounts paying for Twitter’s subscription service are inundating the site with false claims.
Musk is driving attention to some of these accounts.
“Got the Elon Musk stamp of approval,” said KanekoaTheGreat on Telegram after one such reply.
A January study from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank, recorded a “staggering” increase in Musk’s interactions with right-wing accounts since acquiring Twitter. This includes several profiles other research identified as spreaders of US election misinformation.
Musk has repeatedly amplified posts from sources such as the pro-Donald Trump page ‘Catturd’, the anti-LGBTQ account ‘Libs of TikTok’, and the conspiratorial website ZeroHedge.
Ian Miles Cheong, a far-right blogger, has received at least 60 replies from Musk. This beats all but a few other profiles, according to AFP’s analysis.
Nyhan told AFP:
Musk is elevating some of the worst voices on Twitter… These interactions are likely to increase the reach and prominence of the accounts.
In some cases, the Twitter boss has helped to mainstream false narratives.
After an intruder broke into Pelosi’s California residence and struck the lawmaker’s husband with a hammer in October, Musk tweeted a link to an article claiming he was drunk and quarrelling with a male sex worker. #Pelosigaylover then trended on Twitter.
Court filings and footage of the incident disproved the claims, which stemmed from a site that had previously published misinformation. But the damage was done.
Nancy Pelosi said at the time:
It’s really sad for the country that people of that high visibility would separate themselves from the facts and the truth in such a blatant way… It is traumatizing to those affected by it. They don’t care about that, obviously.
Twitter responded to AFP’s requests for comment with the poop emoji, an auto-reply Musk launched in March.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse
Featured image via MainlyTwelve/Wikimedia Commons, via CC 4.0, resized to 770×403
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