Elon Musk’s latest Twitter tantrum is an attempt to amplify propaganda

Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s cartoonish villainy ramped up again last week after he fired an engineer for the high felony of telling him the truth.

Musk, whose social media addiction clearly motivated the otherwise confusing decision to squander billions of dollars buying Twitter, was pissed that his personal account wasn’t getting more likes and retweets. The obvious reason for this is that Musk’s tweets are boring. They are often sub-replacement level right-wing trolling or failed attempts at humor. It’s no surprise that once the excitement over Musk’s purchase of Twitter subsided, so did attention to his stupid tweets. He’s just not that interesting to people who aren’t getting paid to pretend to like him.

Musk didn’t want to hear that truth, however. Instead, he fired the engineer as it’s still technically illegal, even for billionaires, to pull a Darth Vader and assassinate henchmen who dare tell them the real things. For that, Musk has been rightly and flatly mocked on his own platform for being a big ol’ baby.

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While Musk’s ego is a major factor in his insistence that his unpopularity must be a conspiracy against him, his tantrum is part of a larger Republican strategy to use false accusations of social media “bias” against the right as a bargaining chip urging the companies to distribute more right-wing propaganda – often to people who didn’t ask for it. The aim is to create the illusion that far-right ideas are more popular than they actually are and to help normalize and mainstream the MAGA movement’s war on democracy.

It’s the same “refereeing” tactic that has long helped tilt the mainstream media into a pro-Republican bias that often degenerates into outright disinformation. For decades, Republicans have used false claims of “liberal bias” to trick journalists into minimizing negative coverage of the right while spreading often unsubstantiated stories about the left. For example, a nonsensical story about Hillary Clinton’s emails dominated election coverage in 2016, while genuinely disturbing stories about Donald Trump’s long criminal history, from sexual assault to tax fraud, received only a fraction of the coverage. That’s why the media is currently merging a real-life scandal about the theft and hiding of Donald Trump’s secret documents with a bum about President Joe Biden handing over accidentally filed documents without a fuss.

This tactic has manifested itself in the social media age in a way befitting the conspiracy theory-obsessed right in the MAGA era: a delusional insistence that conservatives are subject to an imaginary “shadow ban.”

The fact that right-wing extremist opinions appear more frequently seems unconscious. It will make those ideas seem more popular, normal, and sane than they are.

Now shadowbanning is a real practice where social media companies toggle your account’s presence in an algorithm so far fewer people see it. It was used to reduce the spread of hate speech and disinformation. But there is absolutely no evidence that it is being used to suppress right-wing opinions based on political ideologies. On the contrary, study after study shows that despite half-baked efforts to stop it, social media is geared towards right-wing opinion and the spread of false information.

“Right-wing populism is always more appealing,” a Facebook executive told Politico because it appeals to “primitive emotions” rather than more cerebral left-leaning content. Right trolls don’t just appeal to other rights either. By being provocative, they lure liberals into reacting and increase clicks and engagement.

But the shadowban myth serves a purpose on the right: It’s an excuse to pressure social media companies to favor right-wing content, even going so far as to push it into the feeds of people who do not they were not looking for. When Musk fired an engineer, it was about more than punishing an employee for telling him the truth. It sent a signal to the rest of the workforce: Find a way to elevate Musk’s tweets and right-wing content in general well above organic traffic.

In it, Musk reflects the pressure campaign he has faced from Republicans who want the system to increase their visibility beyond what their actual popularity brings them. As The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany found out last month, Musk’s takeover of Twitter did little to quell false accusations that right-wing tweeters were “shadowbanning.” On the contrary, despite Musk’s best efforts to restore neo-Nazis, fanatics, and other hate tweeters, MAGA bloggers continued to fuss over entirely imaginary blacklists. To make matters worse, congressional Republicans like Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert have also started whining about nonexistent “shadowbans,” often just because they think they should get more retweets than they get. Musk, who always wants the good opinions of the baddest people on the internet, said he would look into it.

It’s the same “refereeing” tactic that has long helped tilt the mainstream media into a pro-Republican bias.

If the story of an engineer being fired is any indication that “look inside” means, then the answer is simple: pressurize the few remaining Twitter employees to rewrite the software to serve everything from far-right propaganda to people which you have not subscribed to It. This theory received another boost on Sunday when Musk tweeted about a “Long day at Twitter HQ with the Eng team,” which sounds a lot like an employee torture session on what was supposed to be a weekend. Musk used a lot of jargon to explain what he was intimidating his staff to do, but it’s not hard to read between the lines. He urged his staff to stop penalizing accounts that get a lot of bans for being right-wing trolls on the “recommended” page. He also called for an “increased number of recommended tweets.”

In other words, they’re told to tweak the algorithm so that a bunch of right-wing trolls are regularly pinned into the feeds of people who don’t follow them. You may have carefully maintained your follow list to avoid serving up fascist propaganda on Twitter, but too bad. You can expect to see these people anyway through pages like “for you” on Twitter. (In fact, Musk’s tweets were delivered to me today on my For You page, although I don’t follow Musk or ever retweet him.)

But what’s worrying isn’t even that some liberals who don’t want to read these right-wing trolls get a full load of it anyway. Hardened progressives are usually not put off by right-wing lies, only annoyed. The real concern is that tweaking the algorithms to reveal more authoritarian propaganda will impact the heavily overlapping groups of gullible people and members of the mainstream press. The fact that right-wing extremist opinions appear more frequently seems unconscious. It will make those ideas seem more popular, normal, and sane than they are. It will expose more people to radicalization and cause the mainstream press to take the absurd GOP nonsense more seriously than it otherwise would have done.

All of that is undoubtedly the point. The same day that Musk tweeted jargon-laden tweets pointing to a more right-wing and disinformation-laden site, he appeared at the Super Bowl in a box seat alongside Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch, of course, has spent years using cable news trappings to give right-wing propaganda the illusion of credibility. He did this by claiming that right wing lies were necessary as a “balance” to the mainstream media. Musk’s presence at his side was a clear signal that Musk shares similar goals when it comes to using social media to sugarcoat disgusting lies. The good news is that his overall poor Twitter management has led to an onslaught from advertisers. The company may not exist long enough to do the damage Musk is hoping for.


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