Opinion: If TikTok is banned, Elon Musk’s influence over election will grow

As Congress revisits the notion of banning TikTok over security concerns and potential influence on the 2024 elections, it is crucial to widen our lens to include the equally concerning dynamics at X, formerly Twitter, under Elon Musk's ownership.

Although a forced sale of X, given its U.S. ownership, is not on the table, ignoring the platform's threats simply because of this difference is a grave oversight. I'm a political influencer on X and TikTok, and it is clear to me that should Americans lose access to TikTok, X's role in the digital discourse landscape will only expand.

Musk's tenure at X has been marked by promotion of far-right ideologies, the monetization of disinformation and censorship. Musk has not only promoted figures associated with white supremacy and platforms aligned with Donald Trump but has also banned journalists and enacted policies that stifle dissenting voices.

Critics of the proposed TikTok "ban" — in actuality, the bill that passed the U.S. House would require a forced sale of the Chinese-owned app — have lauded the transparency of X's algorithm as a solution to concerns over platform manipulation.

However, Musk has made clear, simply publishing the algorithm of a social media platform does little to correct its biases. For example, Musk has demanded that the X algorithm overamplify his own posts. Given that Musk's feed is essentially a cesspool of far-right conspiracy theories and disinformation about the national migrant crisis, forcing this content into users' feeds is essentially a massive in-kind donation to Trump's re-election campaign. Algorithm aside, X has also created a monetary incentive for viral disinformation through its new policy of paying "verified" users for engagement.

  photo  AP File Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez / A workman removes a character from a sign on the Twitter headquarters building in San Francisco on July 24, 2023. The social media platform is now known as X.
 
 

Of course, Musk has destroyed Twitter's original verification system, now simply selling the infamous blue badges to whoever is willing to pay. While some claim the platform's "Community Notes" system, which offers fact-checking and context on misleading posts, addresses some of these issues, here again Musk has weaponized the tool on behalf of far-right extremists. Musk, who has more than 170 million followers on the site, has had Community Note fact-checks removed from his own posts, including a recent tweet falsely claiming that undocumented immigrants vote: "Almost every illegal is a Dem voter."

Beyond Musk's manual manipulations of his platform, he has also engaged in blatantly hypocritical censorship despite insistence that he is a "free speech absolutist." X has engaged in selective content deals that promote one-sided viewpoints. Tucker Carlson, a white nationalist and former Fox News host, has a show on the platform. More alarmingly, Musk has taken to banning journalists and famous users who criticize him.

TikTok has become a vital digital space for many political content creators and consumers, especially those who left Twitter following Musk's takeover. With Meta pulling back from political content on Instagram and Threads, X would surely regain its position as a primary source for online election news and discourse if TikTok is no longer in the picture.

There is no doubt that lawmakers are right to worry about the harmful role TikTok could play in the 2024 election. However, scapegoating TikTok will not address the larger issue that our social media landscape is woefully unregulated and controlled by mercurial billionaires.

If TikTok disappears in the near term, we must be realistic about the perhaps even more pernicious role Musk's X will play in this election.

Kaivan Shroff is the press secretary at the nonprofit Dream for America and the senior adviser for the Institute for Education in Washington.

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