The Problem of Misinformation in an Era Without Trust

When the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk sat down for his profanity-laced interview at The New York Times’s DealBook Summit in late November, his petulant dropping of F-bombs received a lot of attention. Less noticed but far more revealing was his evident disdain for a humble word beginning with the letter T. “You could not trust me,” Musk said, affecting an air of tough-guy indifference in his shearling-collared flight jacket and shiny black boots. “It is irrelevant. The rocket track record speaks for itself.”

Musk wasn’t being pressed on “the rocket track record” — after all, the number of civilians in the audience who were in the market for a spaceship was presumably few. But though he seemed loath to acknowledge it, the question of trust is at the core of X, the social media platform he acquired in October 2022, and where he recently replied to an antisemitic post with the words “You have said the actual truth.” (Calling it “literally the worst and dumbest post that I’ve ever done,” he still hasn’t removed it.)

Asked at the summit to comment on his trustworthiness, Musk rattled off statistics about launching rockets into orbit and boasted about making “the best cars.” (More than two million of those cars have since been recalled under pressure from regulators concerned about the Autopilot software.) But he resisted reflecting on how getting people to engage on X — which is built around information and social relationships — might be qualitatively different from getting earthlings to Mars. There were moments when his defiance shaded into incomprehension. The word “trust” didn’t seem to compute.

One of the first changes Musk made to X was to stop putting as many resources into maintaining the trust he valued so little. He started charging for a blue check mark, which had reliably signaled (at no cost) that a notable account was “verified” and not an impersonation. (The only thing a blue check mark reliably signals now is that someone is willing to pay Musk $8 a month — or maybe not, since he has comped the marks for some celebrity accounts.) He gutted the platform’s content moderation team. He reinstated accounts that had been suspended for peddling hate speech and harmful falsehoods about vaccines.

Critics warned that Musk’s moves were allowing misinformation to flourish, but dependable measurements of misinformation on X have become much harder to come by — largely because they have been stymied by X. In addition to suing an organization that tracks hate speech and falsehoods on social media and rejecting legislators’ calls for transparency, X now charges researchers up to $42,000 a month for access to data-gathering tools that once were free. All the while, Musk has insisted that he’s making X a great place to be. For proof we are left with two extremely limited forms of corroboration: testimonials from individual users and Musk’s word.

“My aspiration for the X platform is that it is the best source of truth, or the least inaccurate source of truth,” he said at the DealBook summit. Less than two weeks later, he welcomed back to the platform the far-right Infowars host Alex Jones, who had been banned in 2018 for harassment. Among the lurid conspiracy theories peddled by Jones was the ghastly lie that the mass shooting of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax. Musk proposed that Community Notes — X’s crowdsourced fact-checking program — would “respond rapidly to any AJ post that needs correction.” A few hours later Musk wrote that a Community Note attached to one of his own posts was “being gamed by state actors.”

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