What’s Happening With Twitter Is a Threat to Democracy

By Dave Toomey

Two years ago, in a catastrophic reminder of the fragility of our democracy, the U.S. Capitol was attacked by far-right extremists attempting to overturn the free, fair, and secure 2020 presidential election. This violent insurrection did not happen in a vacuum. It was paired with numerous hurdles that voters faced during the 2020 election cycle amid a pandemic. And it was exacerbated by relentless efforts to spread disinformation on social media platforms to threaten civil rights, escalate hate speech, undermine election integrity, impose barriers to the ballot box, and discount the votes of communities of color.

Our already fragile democracy was tested again just a few months ago during the midterm elections. Many of the efforts to save democracy by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and those of other civil rights groups, paid off — helping to keep elections running smoothly and reducing the effect of election sabotage messaging and disinformation. In addition, almost all of the election deniers who ran for office in contested states lost and conceded their races.

However, Twitter’s performance on addressing election disinformation was particularly poor during the entire 2022 cycle. They started from a weak foundation, as the major social media platforms largely did not acknowledge or take many steps to address election disinformation after the 2020 election — particularly around the Big Lie — and only restarted efforts in the weeks before the 2022 election. Most major platforms’ enforcement of their own disinformation policies continued to be erratic and inconsistent, particularly against high-profile users. As a result, the disinformation that spread widely led to false claims about voting processes and attempts to overturn the certified results of our elections, leading to direct threats to our democracy. Moreover, reports are emerging that the January 6 Committee found evidence that Twitter and other platforms ignored or downplayed warnings about violent rhetoric spreading on their platforms leading up to the insurrection and failed to enforce their rules against Donald Trump and other high-profile users.

And now, we face another crisis — this time posed by the recent chaotic management of Twitter, the increased level of hate speech and disinformation spreading on the platform, and the departure of key staff heading and working on trust, safety, and data security at several platforms. All of this demonstrates the real and adverse impacts that social media platforms can have on the health of our democracy and civil rights.

Reports show there is an alarming and unprecedented rise of hate speech regarding racial slurs on Twitter since Elon Musk took over on October 27, 2022. He has spread falsehoods on the platform, enabled easier spread of hate and disinformation on Twitter, and allowed accounts back on the platform that were previously banned — something that can result in offline harms, particularly for communities of color. It is now unclear who at Twitter is handling content moderation issues or whether there is sufficient staff to address them. Since Musk’s takeover, the company has shown a disdain for managing the spread of disinformation and the security of content on its platform.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is now taking steps to determine whether Twitter may be violating an existing consent decree over the handling of users’ security information. The FTC is questioning key former executives about whether Twitter has complied with the agency’s 2011 consent order since Musk took over the company. Violation of this agreement that Twitter entered into with the FTC is a serious matter. It could result in billions of dollars of fines and potentially new obligations on Twitter and Musk himself that would remain in effect even if he leaves the company. The Leadership Conference recently sent a letter to the FTC in support of this investigation.

The internet has created immense positive value by connecting people, facilitating civil rights advocacy, and adding new voices to our culture and public debate. But if Twitter (and other platforms) allow disinformation about our civil rights to spread largely unchecked, they will become known as the dominant threat to a democratic process that is becoming more vulnerable to social harms.

There are still major gaps that need to be addressed in the platforms’ management and enforcement of their own rules that are designed to curb this content. Stronger accountability measures must be implemented to ensure disinformation does not spread widely. We have expressed our concerns about disinformation, trust, safety, and data security on Twitter and other platforms as these changes have occurred, and we will continue to do so. We stand ready to work to find solutions that will keep our democracy safe and stop the suppressive effect that disinformation has on civil rights and racial justice. Our civil rights and the integrity of our democracy are at stake.

Dave Toomey is the voting rights and technology fellow at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.