Musk tries to calm rights groups and ad buyers
By Kate Conger, Ryan Mac and Tiffany Hsu
Elon Musk has positioned himself as an unconventional businessman. When he agreed to buy Twitter this year, he declared he would make the social media service a place for unfettered free speech, reversing many of its rules and allowing banned users like former President Donald Trump to return.
But since closing his $44 billion buyout of Twitter last week, Musk has followed a surprisingly conventional social media playbook.
The world’s richest man met with more than six civil rights groups — including the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League — on Tuesday to assure them that he would not make changes to Twitter’s content rules before the results of next week’s midterm elections are certified. He also met with advertising executives to discuss their concerns about their brands appearing alongside toxic online content. Last week, Musk said he would form a council to advise Twitter on what kinds of content to remove from the platform and would not immediately reinstate banned accounts.
If these decisions and outreach seem familiar, that’s because they are. Other leaders of social media companies have taken similar steps. After Facebook was criticized for being misused in the 2016 presidential election, Mark Zuckerberg, the social network’s CEO, also met with civil rights groups to calm them and worked to mollify irate advertisers. He later said he would establish an independent board to advise his company on content decisions.
Musk is in his early days of owning Twitter and is expected to make big changes to the service and business, including laying off some of the company’s 7,500 employees. But for now, he is engaging with many of the same constituents that Zuckerberg has had to over many years, social media experts and heads of civil society groups said.
Musk “has discovered what Mark Zuckerberg discovered several years ago: Being the face of controversial big calls isn’t fun,” said Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School. Social media companies “all face the same pressures of users, advertisers and governments, and there’s always this convergence around this common set of norms and processes that you’re forced toward.”
Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment and a Twitter spokesperson declined to comment. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment.
At Tuesday’s meeting with civil rights groups, which Musk held over a videoconferencing service, the discussions centered on next week’s midterm elections and his approach to content moderation, said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, and Yael Eisenstat, who heads the Center for Technology & Society at the Anti-Defamation League, all of whom attended the call.
During the 45-minute discussion, the group asked Musk for a multimonth moratorium on changes to Twitter’s policies and enforcement processes related to elections, hate speech and harassment — at least until the midterm election results were finalized and “he has his house in order,” Eisenstat said.
They also asked that Musk block the return of anyone who had been removed from Twitter for violating rules or inciting violence until he created a transparent process for doing so, she said.
Musk “appeared to be actively engaged and actively listening throughout the entire meeting” Eisenstat said. She added that Musk told the group that he does not want Twitter to be a “hate-amplifier” and invited the participants on the call to join his proposed content moderation council.
“He made it seem as if he wants to continue this dialogue,” she said.
Musk also told the group that he would not make changes to Twitter’s policies or reinstate banned accounts before the final results of the vote, the attendees said.
The billionaire was receptive to the concerns raised by the civil rights organizations, Johnson and Robinson said. But they added that their groups were waiting to see what actions Musk might take.
“We were pleasantly surprised with his verbal receptiveness with the things that we raised, and now we want to see the outcome,” Johnson said.
Musk, who has been working with a group of advisers as he takes over Twitter, has also had discussions with advertisers in recent days. Twitter makes about 90% of its revenue from digital advertising. While Musk has said he wants to reduce how much the company relies on advertising, he is under pressure to improve Twitter’s finances quickly because of debt repayments he must make for the buyout.