Recent moves by YouTube, Meta Platforms and X Corp. threaten to undermine democracy in the upcoming election year, the digital rights group Free Press warned in a report issued Thursday.
“In 2023, the largest social-media companies have deprioritized content moderation and other user trust and safety protections, including rolling back platform policies that had reduced the presence of hate, harassment and lies on their networks,” Free Press states in its new report “Big Tech Backslide: How Social-Media Rollbacks Endanger Democracy Ahead of the 2024 Elections.”
The report criticized the companies for numerous recent decisions -- ranging from reinstating the account of former president Donald Trump to laying off tens of thousands of employees to revising political ad policies. Free Press specifically noted that X Corp. recently said it will allow political ads for the first time since 2019, and Meta said it will let political advertisers question the result of the last presidential election.
With those moves, the tech platforms have “created a toxic online environment that is vulnerable to exploitation from anti-democracy forces, white supremacists and other bad actors,” Free Press writes.
While the report looks at the three major social platforms, X Corp. comes in for particular criticism.
“It’s a colossal understatement to say that Elon Musk has failed as the head of Twitter,” the report says, adding that the CEO “has destroyed almost everything that once made the platform worthwhile.”
“Musk began by gutting content-moderation policies and decisions, ranging from ending the COVID-19 disinformation policy to discontinuing the Trust and Safety Council,” the report states. “Just four weeks after Twitter’s purchase, Musk announced a 'general amnesty,' swiftly reinstating thousands of previously banned accounts, including those belonging to prominent hate superspreaders.”
Free Press goes on to say that Musk's “most troubling” moves were to sue the watchdogs Center for Countering Digital Hate and Media Matters over critical reports.
This summer, the company claimed in a lawsuit that the Center for Countering Digital Hate violated Twitter's terms of service by accessing publicly available posts to compile critical reports -- such as a report issued in July accusing Twitter of failing to take down racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic comments posted by Twitter Blue subscribers. (That report cited several examples, such as the posts “Diversity is a codeword for White Genocide,” and “Trannies are pedophiles.”)
Last month, X Corp. also sued Media Matters over reports alleging that ads from large brands appeared next to antisemitic posts and white nationalist hashtags.
“The use of litigation to silence critics is an old tactic,” Free Press writes, adding that X Corp's claims could discourage other organizations from scrutinizing tech platforms.
“The use of these lawsuits is dangerous for researchers who might otherwise want to investigate platform behavior but decide not to out of fear of being sued,” Free Press writes. “It’s also dangerous for the public, which might remain in the dark about tech companies’ unethical practices.”