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What civil rights leaders heard from Elon Musk about curbing hate and lies on Twitter

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The spread of misinformation is still a top concern in this final stretch of the 2022 midterm elections. So where does one influential platform, Twitter, now stand on those concerns? This week, seven civil rights leaders got on a conference call with Twitter's new CEO Elon Musk to try to find out. He is facing increasing pressure as the company has acknowledged a surge in hate speech on the platform. CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt was on that call with Musk on Tuesday, and he joins me now. Welcome.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So as I understand, Musk was the only Twitter leader on this call. What is the top line on what you all heard from him?

GREENBLATT: Well, first of all, just to give you some context, this was members of the Stop Hate for Profit Coalition, a group of civil rights leaders who came together in 2020 after the surge of hate speech, racism and antisemitism on Facebook that was able to ring over a period of months in a series of concessions from the company. We've spoken out about YouTube and Twitter in the past. We came together to meet with Elon Musk to understand his vision for the platform and share some specific concerns. I think the top line on the meeting was, to be honest with you, as always is the case, you know, words matter, but actions matter much more. And yet what we heard was very encouraging. He listened. He processed. And he responded with some very specific commitments that he then tweeted out later that evening, suggesting to us that he plans on following through.

SUMMERS: And we should just acknowledge here that most of the world is not on this platform, is not on Twitter. So...

GREENBLATT: Of course.

SUMMERS: Why is it so important to you and the other members of this coalition to get these assurances, to have these conversations with Elon Musk on how the platform is used moving forward?

GREENBLATT: Well, look. Already since it was announced he would be buying the platform, we've seen an uptick in extremist activity, racism, antisemitism, homophobia. And we know advertisers share our concerns as well. And so we wanted to express our issues and to hear from him but not just hear, watch him. Will he do it? Putting it in writing on Twitter somewhat binds Elon Musk, I think, to live up to his own words. And he said specific things about not replatforming anyone until there's a clear and transparent process - people who've been kicked off the platform - about maintaining a commitment with information, with infrastructure and resources to enforce election disinformation and maintain the integrity of elections and, finally, to adopt and create a content moderation council, including representatives of groups like ours who have faced hateful violence in the past.

SUMMERS: You mentioned replatforming, so I'd like to ask you about one particular user, former President Donald Trump, who was kicked off of Twitter in 2021 shortly after the January 6 attack on the Capitol for tweets that violated Twitter's glorification of violence policy. Did the possibility of allowing Trump back on Twitter come up in your conversation?

GREENBLATT: Trump's name was not mentioned. He - actually, I think his name was mentioned. We didn't ask whether he would be replatformed. But Elon did agree not to allow anyone, which would include President Trump, who was deplatformed for violating Twitter rules or inciting violence back on the platform, regardless of their political stature, until there is a transparent process with clear rules and until after the election results are certified. That struck all of us as an important win.

SUMMERS: I want to step back here for a moment because, of course, this is not just about Twitter. Misinformation and hate speech is on the rise across our country right now. And you have said, quote, "a collapse of our democracy is entirely possible if we do not take the necessary steps to prevent it." Jonathan, what do those steps look like to you?

GREENBLATT: Well, first and foremost, I think social media has been a superspreader of this disinformation hate, to your point, beyond Twitter. We need government intervention, legislative reform, specifically the exemption provided by 230, which has allowed conspiracy theories and incitement and hate to flourish on these platforms. Once and for all, that needs to go away - so Section 230 reform.

No. 2, I really think we need to look at some of the bare infrastructure of democracy to make sure that election integrity is maintained, that people have access to the ballot box regardless of their economic class or their social stature. That's incredibly important as well.

And No. 3, I think we need other, you know, reforms in Washington. We have a system which is polarized at a level, at the ADL, we have not seen in any point in our memory. After 110 years of fighting hate, I'm afraid we're at a precipice that, if we don't act now, indeed, it could be too late.

SUMMERS: That was CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League Jonathan Greenblatt. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

GREENBLATT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.