This weekend, advertisers, regulators, and Twitter users were all attentively watching Elon Musk’s Twitter feed for any indication of whether the free speech absolutist could be trusted to do things like effectively combat disinformation spread after taking over the site. In what may be considered Musk’s first major misstep as Twitter’s new owner, Musk chose that moment to amplify a far-right conspiracy theory in a now-deleted tweet garnering scrutiny from all sides.
Musk’s tweet came amid a wave of online chatter discussing what happened when an accused intruder, David Wayne DePape, broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s house, attacked her now-hospitalized husband Paul with a hammer, and screamed out, “Where’s Nancy?” Investigating possible motives, CBS News reviewed some of DePape’s social media posts and confirmed that DePape had shared several far-right conspiracy theories, including posts denying the Holocaust and tying Democratic officials to child sex rings. CBS also reported that DePape allegedly had a list of other targets.
Hillary Clinton joined others in tweeting critically of the Republican party, which she accused of inciting violence by spreading “deranged conspiracy theories.” Clinton’s tweet prompted Musk to link Clinton to an article from a weekly newspaper known to publish false news—the Santa Monica Observer—which, according to The New York Times, reported false allegations suggesting that Paul Pelosi knew his attacker. Overlooking the dubious news source, Musk repeated those false allegations, telling Clinton and his millions of followers that “there is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye.”
It took Musk a few hours before he deleted the controversial tweet. He has since mocked The New York Times for its report on the deleted tweet but has seemingly offered no other explanation for tweeting out the link.
Musk wasn’t the only influential person tweeting the conspiracy about Paul Pelosi’s attack. The Washington Post reported that many right-wing personalities spread misinformation about the attack, seeming to indicate an ongoing willingness to sow distrust over violent events, which is what spurned Clinton’s original tweet.
It’s this kind of disinformation cycle that the European Union is attempting to break through its Digital Services Act, a landmark law that could impose heavy fines on Twitter if the platform under Musk doesn’t maintain compliance with the industry standards the law sets for content moderation.
Due to Musk’s views on free speech, EU regulators have already begun pressing Musk on this point, even before he tweeted the misinformation about the Pelosi attack. Reuters reported that last week, Musk promised the European Commission that Twitter would comply with the DSA. In the coming weeks, Musk will meet with EU industry chief Thierry Breton, seemingly to address Breton’s concerns over how Musk might be planning to change Twitter content moderation.
No one is sure how Musk’s vision of Twitter will play out, but he’ll likely continue to face pressure from advertisers, regulators, and Twitter users. At a time when Musk needs to squeeze profits from his Twitter acquisition—after already taking on $13 billion in debt—it seems less than ideal to also risk millions in DSA fines. But Musk also faces pressure from popular accounts that expect him to follow through on his promise to prioritize free speech on Twitter.
So far, Musk announced that he plans to build a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” that will seemingly judge every major decision when it comes to restricting content or users.
In a letter to Twitter advertisers on Thursday ahead of the deleted-tweet debacle, Musk had previously tweeted that “there is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society.” He aimed much of this criticism at “traditional media,” though, not mentioning how fake news can incite even seemingly savvy Twitter users to contribute to disinformation spread, just like the story Musk linked and then deleted.
Twitter did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.