In the spring of 2020, when President Donald J. Trump wrote messages on Twitter warning that increased reliance on mail-in ballots would lead to a “rigged election,” the platform ran a corrective, debunking his claims.
“Get the facts about mail-in voting,” a content label read. “Experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud,” the hyperlinked article declared.
This month, Elon Musk, who has since bought Twitter and rebranded it X, echoed several of Mr. Trump’s claims about the American voting system, putting forth distorted and false notions that American elections were wide open for fraud and illegal voting by noncitizens.
This time, there were no fact checks. And the X algorithm — under Mr. Musk’s direct control — helped the posts reach large audiences, in some cases drawing many millions of views.
Since taking control of the site, Mr. Musk has dismantled the platform’s system for flagging false election content, arguing it amounted to election interference.
Now, his early election-year attacks on a tried-and-true voting method are raising alarms among civil rights lawyers, election administrators and Democrats. They worry that his control over the large social media platform gives him an outsize ability to reignite the doubts about the American election system that were so prevalent in the lead-up to the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
As Mr. Trump’s victory in New Hampshire moved the race closer to general election grounds, the Biden campaign for the first time criticized Mr. Musk directly for his handling of election content on X: “It is profoundly irresponsible to spread false information and sow distrust about how our elections operate,” the Biden campaign manager, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, said this week in a statement to The New York Times.
“It’s even more dangerous coming from the owner of a social media platform,” she added.
What is angering the Biden campaign is delighting pro-Trump Republicans and others who depict the old Twitter as part of a government-controlled censorship regime that aided Mr. Biden in 2020. Under a system now in dispute at the Supreme Court, government officials alerted platforms to posts they deemed dangerous, though it was up to the companies to act or not.
“Oh, boo hoo,” Harmeet K. Dhillon, a lawyer whose firm represents Mr. Trump, said of the Democrats’ complaints. Ms. Dhillon has sued the company for suspending an election-denying client’s account after receiving a notice from the California election officials — the sort of government interplay Mr. Musk has repudiated. She noted the platform was now “a much better place for conservatives,” and said of Mr. Musk, “he’s great.”
X did not respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, its chief executive, Linda Yaccarino, wrote in a blog post that the platform had expanded its alternate approach to fact-checking misinformation — through crowdsourced “community notes” written by users.
There were no such notes on Mr. Musk’s voting messages. But they were on a post by another X user that made the wild claim that Mr. Biden won the New Hampshire primary only through ballot stuffing.
The freer flow of false voting information is hardly the only perceived threat to elections building on social platforms, with the rise of artificial intelligence, increasingly realistic deep fakes and a growing acceptance of political violence.
That Mr. Biden’s campaign would single out Mr. Musk points to the unique role he is already playing in the 2024 election.
No major media owner of the modern era has used his national platform to insert himself so personally and aggressively into an American election.
While Rupert Murdoch’s conservative media empire, which includes Fox News, has exercised unrivaled influence over United States politics for decades, he has largely kept behind the scenes, generally leaving it to his editors, producers and hosts to determine the specifics of the coverage.
And while Facebook is larger than X, its owner, Mark Zuckerberg, is answerable to shareholders and responsive to advertisers. He has sought to avoid being personally drawn into the political fray.
Mr. Musk jumped in within days of taking ownership of the site, urging his followers to vote Republican. He has been open in his disdain for Mr. Biden, whose White House has at times responded in kind.
Then again, Mr. Musk has no shareholder concerns at X, which he took private in late 2022. He has dismissed advertiser complaints or calls to block content that might degrade confidence in democracy.
Exhibiting a distinctly 21st-century form of raw media power, X has also throttled and punished Mr. Musk’s perceived competitors and foes while reinstating accounts that were previously banned for content violations, some relating to the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. The platform’s algorithm — which dictates how posts are circulated on the site — also now gives added promotion to those who pay to be “verified,” including previously banned accounts.
Among them is @KanekoaTheGreat, a once-banned QAnon influencer who this month circulated a 32-page dossier promoted by Mr. Trump that recounted a barrage of false charges about the 2020 election.
It drew nearly 22 million views.
In 2020, Twitter’s “election integrity hub,” which had an open line with outside groups and political campaigns, either deleted or added context to posts with misleading information about voting.
Posts with false information about when and where to vote, for instance, would be removed. Those with misleading information about mail voting, like Mr. Trump’s, would get notices pointing users to alerts and fact-checking articles.
As Mr. Trump and his allies ramped up their attacks on mail voting — a preferred method for Democrats during the coronavirus pandemic — Twitter expanded its policy to remove or label claims that “undermine faith” in elections.
Those measures proved only so effective. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the other major platforms, which had similar measures, were also awash in election lies, and they faced criticism in the months after the Jan. 6 attack that they didn’t do enough.
Agreeing with critics who say the measures caused unfair and one-sided censorship, Mr. Musk said he cut the integrity team last fall because it was in fact “undermining election integrity.” He added, “They’re gone.” (His chief executive, Ms. Yaccarino, quickly disputed that characterization, saying the work would continue and even expand.)
Maya Wiley, the chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which communicated regularly with the platforms in 2020, said Mr. Musk’s decision had ripple effects. “It’s also given a free pass to folks like Facebook and YouTube,” she said.
X’s more lenient policy still addresses posts that incite violence, that include verifiably false information about voting locations and dates, or that mislead about eligibility laws, “including identification or citizenship requirements.”
Mr. Musk’s recent posts appear to bump up against that rule.
On Jan. 10, he responded to a post about the recent influx of undocumented immigrants by writing, falsely, that “illegals are not prevented from voting in federal elections. This came as a surprise to me.” A couple of days earlier, Mr. Musk implied that Mr. Biden and the Democrats were being lax on immigration because “they are importing voters,” an echo of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump was sharing around the same time.
United States law prohibits noncitizens from voting in federal elections, under the threat of jail time and deportation. Instances of illegal voting by noncitizens are rare.
Mr. Musk has also raised broader doubts about the American election system. On Jan. 8, he wrote that voters in the United States “don’t need government issued ID to vote and you can mail in your ballot. This is insane.” The post was viewed 59 million times.
More than half of states require voters to produce some form of identification at polls, and most that don’t require signatures, affidavits or birth dates; federal law requires identification verification from voters when they register.
In November, he picked up on a story about considerable evidence of widespread absentee-ballot fraud in Bridgeport, Conn., and wrote, “The only question is how common it is.”
Where Bridgeport’s trouble is real — enough that a judge ordered a redo of the Democratic primary — it is also rare. Mail ballots have been used for years, and with various safeguards, have proved exceedingly reliable, with bipartisan acceptance, at least before Mr. Trump intensified criticism of the method.
Mr. Trump failed to provide evidence of any significant fraud in any of his lawsuits contesting his defeat in 2020.
That has not stopped Mr. Musk from adding to the steady hum of doubts about the voting system among millions of Americans, contributing to the already-fraught climate for election workers as Mr. Trump reprises his stolen-election lies for 2024, some election officials said.
“It bubbles, and keeps the temperature higher,” said Stephen Richer, the county recorder in Maricopa County, Ariz., a hot zone for election conspiracy theories. A Republican and longtime admirer of Mr. Musk’s business accomplishments, Mr. Richer added, “Whether it’s President Trump or Mr. Musk talking about this and keeping it very much a top-of-mind issue, that can potentially make our lives more challenging.”
The Biden campaign shares that concern. “We will continue to call out this recklessness as we carry out President Biden’s commitment to protecting our elections,” Ms. Chávez Rodríguez said.
That is, however, the only option the campaign has — the complaint line between the campaign and the platform is dead.
Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.