Elon Musk recommends voting Republican, bans impersonators from Twitter

Marion Kozub

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New Twitter owner Elon Musk tweeted Monday encouraging “independent-minded voters” to vote Republican, marking a major departure for leaders of social media companies, who typically steer clear of partisan political advocacy.

“Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic,” he tweeted.

The remark capped a chaotic weekend in which Musk abruptly changed course on several major issues for the company, which he acquired for $44 billion a little over a week ago. After laying off about half of the workforce on Friday, Twitter began scrambling to rehire some who were let go. It postponed the planned launch of its new paid verification product until after the midterm elections.

And it suspended popular accounts for impersonating Musk, under a new policy that the company’s new CEO announced Sunday.

Musk’s endorsement of GOP candidates to his 115 million Twitter followers, a day before midterm elections, is likely to intensify the partisan divide over his takeover of the platform. Lawmakers in the past have grilled executives of social media companies including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube as to whether their decisions could have influenced election outcomes, even as those executives have studiously avoided signaling their preferences for a given party or candidate.

Musk has shown himself to be an outspoken and occasionally erratic CEO, prone to outbursts — sometimes in public forums such as earnings calls. Meanwhile his public pronouncements on Tesla have at times broken well-understood norms, such as the expectation that company leaders withhold comment on market-moving matters during the trading day.

“Tesla stock price is too high imo,” he declared in one tweet — sending the stock plunging. Musk tweeted in 2018 that he had “Funding secured” to take Tesla private for $420 per share, leading the Securities and Exchange Commission to accuse him of misleading investors. Musk and Tesla each agreed to pay $20 million fines in the ordeal, and Musk relinquished his board chairmanship of Tesla in the settlement.

But Musk’s shoot-from-the-hip ethos carries new gravity as he runs Twitter, a highly influential forum where millions seek out news, election information and communications from world leaders. As Musk’s interest in owning Twitter was becoming apparent, he said Twitter serves as a “de facto public town square,” and should adhere to principles of free speech, doing little beyond what the law explicitly requires to police itself.

His endorsement in the elections as the CEO of a massively influential social media site shines a new light on how he plans to execute that vision.

Musk’s endorsement of Republicans may come as a surprise to some, but he has been expressing disdain for the direction of the Democratic Party in recent years. In April, he wrote that he strongly supported Obama for president, but that the party had been “hijacked by extremists.”

Elon Musk’s Twitter layoffs, explained

“I support free speech, but not any one candidate. In fact, I gave money to & voted for Hillary & then voted for Biden,” he tweeted in May. “However, given unprovoked attacks by leading Democrats against me & a very cold shoulder to Tesla & SpaceX, I intend to vote Republican.”

Musk gave additional insight into his politics on Monday, tweeting “To be clear, my historical party affiliation has been Independent, with an actual voting history of entirely Democrat until this year.” He added he’d be open to voting Democrat in the future.

Musk had expressed frustration with California’s government amid shelter-in-place orders during coronavirus restrictions in 2020, as Tesla’s factory there was closed. In May of that year, he defiantly reopened Tesla’s plant — accepting the support of President Donald Trump in his push to break with county-level stay-at-home orders. Musk broke into a profanity-laced rant during a Tesla earnings call around the time, calling quarantine measures “fascist.”

Musk’s sudden, dramatic moves energized some on the right, who view Musk as reversing Twitter’s leftward shift under previous leadership. And it kept many users glued to Twitter, where his follower count continued to grow rapidly over the weekend.

Musk said Friday that Twitter has seen a “massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers” to stop advertising on the platform.

Researchers saw early signs that the conversation on the platform was already changing in the first week of Musk’s ownership, as conspiracy theorists appeared emboldened by his promises of a hands-off approach to policing the platform.

In Musk’s first five days of ownership of Twitter, posts from accounts related to the baseless pro-Trump extremist group QAnon nearly doubled according to the nonprofit Advance Democracy, which conducts public interest research. And tweets casting doubt on U.S. elections were receiving thousands of retweets and no labels, the research found.

Musk sought to quell the concerns of advertisers, but the issue ballooned as he chose to conduct large-scale layoffs in the run-up to the midterm elections, prompting fears about how the platform would be policed. It hadn’t helped that Musk himself, days after taking ownership of the site, shared a post containing misinformation about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi. Musk tweeted, then deleted, a post linking to a conspiracy theory-laden article from the Santa Monica Observer, described by fact-checkers as a low-credibility source favoring the extreme right.

Some advertisers chose to express caution as Twitter entered the era of Musk’s ownership.

Companies including General Motors, Volkswagen Group and General Mills all said they were pausing advertising on Twitter. Meanwhile civil rights groups called for an advertiser boycott, with NAACP President Derrick Johnson saying, “It is immoral, dangerous, and highly destructive to our democracy for any advertiser to fund a platform that fuels hate speech, election denialism, and conspiracy theories.”

Under financial pressure to turn the company around quickly, Musk has been touting a plan to charge users $8 per month to get verified and receive a check mark testifying to their account’s authenticity, among other benefits. Musk initially promised the new subscription plan, known as Twitter Blue, would launch on Monday, and there was widespread confusion Saturday about whether the feature was launching.

But a person familiar with the plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans, told The Washington Post the launch will not happen until after the midterms. The New York Times first reported the delay.

They traded Twitter for Mastodon Social. Now what?

The company began reaching out over the weekend to try to rehire employees it had just laid off, according to multiple internal sources, including two with direct knowledge of the rehiring efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Among the people Twitter is said to be seeking to rehire are engineers who worked on the company’s Android app, members of its Cortex machine-learning team, and others with specific technical expertise needed to launch new products, sources told The Post. The attempt to bring back laid-off employees was first reported by Platformer on Friday.

“They’re asking people to come back because a lot of things are breaking there,” said one laid-off Twitter employee who was asked about their interest in returning to the company. A few teams “were completely eliminated without much thought and now it’s causing roadblocks for other teams. It’s been a frustrating week for those employed, too.”

The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters, told The Post they planned to decline the offer to return.

Advertisers fleeing, workers in fear: Welcome to Elon Musk’s Twitter

Generating some of the most controversy, Twitter started suspending accounts “engaged in impersonation” on Sunday after Musk announced that all accounts falsely using the names of real people without a “parody” label would be immediately banned from the platform.

The move came after a flood of users changed their display names to match Musk’s — many of whom jeered his controversial announcement that Twitter would soon charge users $8 per month for verification.

“Going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying ‘parody’ will be permanently suspended,” Musk tweeted Sunday afternoon. “Previously, we issued a warning before suspension, but now that we are rolling out widespread verification, there will be no warning.”

The new impersonation policy appeared to contradict Musk’s assurance last week that he would convene a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” before making any major decisions. In May, Musk criticized permanent suspensions, saying that they “fundamentally undermine trust in Twitter.”

Musk had also previously indicated he would reinstate permanently suspended accounts such as that of Trump, who was banned after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol under Twitter’s policies against inciting violence. But last week he said the company would not bring back Trump or other banned accounts before the midterms.

Twitter to charge $8 a month for verification. What you need to know.

Among those suspended from Twitter for changing their display names to “Elon Musk” was comedian Kathy Griffin, who, under Musk’s moniker, urged Americans to vote for Democrats in the midterm elections.

“I’ve decided that voting blue for their choice is only right,” she wrote shortly before her account was suspended. YouTuber Ethan Klein was also appeared to be suspended from the platform after he joined those impersonating Musk.

Griffin’s fans called Twitter’s move a crackdown on freedom of speech and parody, using the hashtag #freekathy to criticize the platform’s new policy. Later on Sunday, Musk, who is the world’s richest person, tweeted that Griffin could have her account back if she paid up.

“If she really wants her account back, she can have it,” Musk wrote. “For $8.”

Late Monday, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, Yoel Roth, expanded on the new emphasis on impersonation in a tweet thread, arguing that the site’s expansion of verification — denoted by a blue check mark — raises the stakes.

“When Verified accounts use impersonation as a tactic — whether for parody or not — it creates an especially confusing experience,” he wrote, adding such accounts would be suspended when Twitter discovered them. “We’re particularly focused on the risks of impersonation of public officials in the context of the US 2022 midterm elections, and have made the decision not to launch Verification for Twitter Blue until after Election Day.”

Going forward, he said, Twitter should invest more in identity verification — in addition to ensuring humans are behind accounts on the site. The $8 per month charge would probably help the site’s efforts to fight spam perpetrated by nonhuman accounts, but there was still work to be done to ensure that accounts are tied to the people claiming to be behind them.

“No solution to identity is perfect, and we’re iterating quickly to come up with the best approach here,” he said.

Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.

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