Elon Musk Takes a Page Out of Mark Zuckerberg’s Social Media Playbook

Elon Musk Takes a Page Out of Mark Zuckerberg’s Social Media Playbook

Elon Musk has positioned himself as an unconventional businessman. When he agreed to buy Twitter this year, he declared he would make the social media service a place for unfettered free speech, reversing many of its rules and allowing banned users like former President Donald J. Trump to return.

But since closing his $44 billion buyout of Twitter last week, Mr. Musk has followed a surprisingly conventional social media playbook.

The world’s richest man met with more than six civil rights groups — including the N.A.A.C.P. and the Anti-Defamation League — on Tuesday to assure them that he will not make changes to Twitter’s content rules before the results of next week’s midterm elections are certified. He also met with advertising executives to discuss their concerns about their brands appearing alongside toxic online content. Last week, Mr. Musk said he would form a council to advise Twitter on what kinds of content to remove from the platform and would not immediately reinstate banned accounts.

If these decisions and outreach seem familiar, that’s because they are. Other leaders of social media companies have taken similar steps. After Facebook was criticized for being misused in the 2016 presidential election, Mark Zuckerberg, the social network’s chief executive, also met with civil rights groups to calm them and worked to mollify irate advertisers. He later said he would establish an independent board to advise his company on content decisions.

Mr. Musk is in his early days of owning Twitter and is expected to make big changes to the service and business, including laying off some of the company’s 7,500 employees. But for now, he is engaging with many of the same constituents that Mr. Zuckerberg has had to over many years, social media experts and heads of civil society groups said.

Mr. Musk “has discovered what Mark Zuckerberg discovered several years ago: Being the face of controversial big calls isn’t fun,” said Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School. Social media companies “all face the same pressures of users, advertisers and governments, and there’s always this convergence around this common set of norms and processes that you’re forced toward.”

Mr. Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and a Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, declined to comment.

At Tuesday’s meeting with civil rights groups, which Mr. Musk held over a videoconferencing service, the discussions centered on next week’s midterm elections and his approach to content moderation, said Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P.; Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change; and Yael Eisenstat, who heads the Center for Technology & Society at the Anti-Defamation League. All three attended the call.

During the 45-minute discussion, the group asked Mr. Musk for a multimonth moratorium on changes to Twitter’s policies and enforcement processes related to elections, hate speech and harassment — at least until the midterm election results were final and “he has his house in order,” Ms. Eisenstat said.

They also asked that Mr. Musk block the return of anyone who had been removed from Twitter for violating rules or inciting violence until he created a transparent process for doing so, she said.

Mr. Musk “appeared to be actively engaged and actively listening throughout the entire meeting,” Ms. Eisenstat said. She added that Mr. Musk had told the group that he did not want Twitter to be a “hate-amplifier” and invited the participants on the call to join his proposed content moderation council.

“He made it seem as if he wants to continue this dialogue,” she said.

Mr. Musk also told the group that he would not make changes to Twitter’s policies or reinstate banned accounts before the final results of the vote, the attendees said.

The billionaire was receptive to the concerns raised by the civil rights organizations, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Robinson said. But they added that their groups were waiting to see what actions Mr. Musk might take.

“We were pleasantly surprised with his verbal receptiveness with the things that we raised, and now we want to see the outcome,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Musk, who has been working with a group of advisers as he takes over Twitter, has also had discussions with advertisers in recent days. Twitter makes about 90 percent of its revenue from digital advertising. While Mr. Musk has said he wants to reduce how much the company relies on advertising, he is under pressure to improve Twitter’s finances quickly because of debt repayments he must make for the buyout.

“We’re having a very productive day meeting with the marketing and advertising community here in New York,” Jason Calacanis, an investor who is advising Mr. Musk on Twitter, said in a tweet on Monday.

Some advertisers have been wary of Mr. Musk’s Twitter if it takes an anything-goes approach to speech. IPG, one of the world’s largest advertising companies, recommended this week that clients temporarily pause their spending on Twitter as Mr. Musk takes over. General Motors said last week that it was temporarily suspending advertising on Twitter.

Other social media firms have previously grappled with advertiser backlash over harmful content on their platforms. Last year, more than 1,000 advertisers boycotted Facebook after civil rights groups organized a #StopHateForProfit campaign to protest the platform’s handling of hate speech and misinformation.

Even Mr. Musk’s move to create a council to advise on content moderation decisions echoed that of other social media companies. In 2020, Facebook established an oversight board made up of former political leaders and human rights activists to deliberate the company’s content decisions. At the time, Mr. Zuckerberg said that he did not want to have final say over what speech would be allowed on the social network and that the company’s moderation decisions could be appealed to the oversight board.

The oversight board has since issued rulings on decisions such as Facebook’s barring of Mr. Trump’s account after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Mr. Musk is poised to take a similar approach. “Twitter’s content moderation council will include representatives with widely divergent views, which will certainly include the civil rights community and groups who face hate-fueled violence,” he said in a tweet on Tuesday evening.

Still, Mr. Musk left open the possibility of eventually reinstating banned accounts. “Twitter will not allow anyone who was de-platformed for violating Twitter rules back on platform until we have a clear process for doing so, which will take at least a few more weeks,” he said.

He also expressed support for some existing Twitter features, including Birdwatch, a community-based initiative that lets people identify information in tweets they believe is misleading and write notes with more context. The initiative is still undergoing testing but is being rolled out to some high-profile tweets.

“Our goal is to make Twitter the most accurate source of information on Earth, without regard to political affiliation,” Mr. Musk tweeted on Wednesday.

Sheera Frenkel contributed reporting.