Elon Musk, Twitter and the new normal of election disinformation Tech companies are showing people a little bit about misleading information so they're better equipped to recognize and resist it. And they've seen encouraging results — for now, anyway.

The new normal of election disinformation

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Twitter logo.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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I got a surprise when I opened Twitter the other morning — and no, it wasn't because of the latest tweet from new owner Elon Musk.

Twitter message.
Twitter

At the top of my feed was a colorful graphic announcing, "It takes time to count all of the votes." It gave a few more details about why (projected winners in some contests might not be announced right away) and a warning: "This means you could encounter unconfirmed claims that a candidate has won their race." Below were two buttons to "find out more" and "learn how voting by mail is safe and secure."

I immediately recognized what I was seeing: a "prebunk".

A vaccine against false claims

Twitter is just one of several companies, government agencies and civic groups experimenting with this strategy, which rests on a simple idea: show people a little bit about misleading information, so they're better equipped to recognize and resist it if they encounter it in the future. Think of it like a vaccine against false claims — in fact, it stems from a field of social psychology research called inoculation theory.

The research on just how prebunks work and how long they last is still in the early innings — and everyone I spoke with about the strategy emphasized it's only one part of the bigger fight to protect elections, and democracy at large, from the corrosive impact of deliberate falsehoods.

But companies including Twitter and Google have seen encouraging results, and are putting resources into prebunks — in Twitter's case for this fall's elections in the U.S. and Brazil, and in Google's case around Europe's refugee crisis.

Elon Musk's Twitter takeover

For now, anyway. Because the other thing I immediately thought when I saw that message on Twitter was, how long will this last?

Which brings me back to Elon Musk. The world's richest person now owns Twitter, and things are already changing. The site saw a surge in hate speech right after news broke that he'd taken control. Twitter and outside researchers said a coordinated campaign originating on far-right platforms was in part to blame. Trolls egged each other on to post racist slurs and antisemitic memes on Twitter, in an apparent effort to make it seem like Musk had followed through on his promises to loosen the platform's rules against things like abuse, harassment and misleading claims in the name of free speech.

Musk says no rules have changed yet and that he won't make any major overhauls — including reinstating banned users such as former President Donald Trump — until he sets up a "content moderation council."

New owner, new rules?

But as the trolling campaign shows, his ownership is already having an impact. And Musk himself is engaging in his characteristic chaos: one moment pledging to advertisers that Twitter won't become a "free-for-all hellscape," the next tweeting to his 112 million followers a lurid, baseless conspiracy theory about the violent attack on Paul Pelosi. (Musk eventually deleted the tweet, but not before it was retweeted and liked tens of thousands of times.)

That's left many people — including people inside Twitter working on trust and safety — increasingly agitated about the company's willingness and capacity to deal with misleading information about voting and candidates, threats to election workers, and the possibility of premature or false claims of victory.

This week, Twitter froze some employee access to content moderation tools, Bloomberg reported. Musk also laid off swaths of employees on Friday, including members of the curation team who tackle misinformation and contextualize news on the platform, according to employees.

"We're still enforcing our rules at scale," Yoel Roth, Twitter's head of safety and integrity, tweeted in response to the Bloomberg story.

But what happens when the person potentially breaking them is Twitter's owner, CEO and sole director?

That's just one of the questions my colleagues and I on NPR's disinformation and democracy team will be examining as we head into the midterms, the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign, and key elections around the world.