It’s official: Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, is about to be in charge of Twitter. Musk paid $44 billion to acquire the social media platform with the stated aim of turning it into a haven for “free speech.”
The web is awash in speculation over what that means. Conservatives and people booted off the platform have pushed for Musk to reinstate banned accounts, including that of former President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, prominent Twitter figures are now saying they’ll leave the platform in protest of its new owner. Among them is English actress Jameela Jamil, who tweeted her fears Monday that Musk “is going to help this hell platform reach its final form of totally lawless hate, bigotry, and misogyny.”
It’s unclear whether Musk will be able to realize all his plans for Twitter. The tech leader has floated less moderation, less advertising and an open-source algorithm. But Musk’s stated ideals contradict his own actions.
What Musk says he wants
Musk has made clear he wants less moderation — which he considers censorship — on the platform.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said in Monday’s announcement about the acquisition.
He also said he wants to defeat the “spambots,” or automated accounts that mimic real users; open the algorithm to public inspection and “authenticate all humans” using the platform.
Musk laid out a definition of speech in a TED interview last week.
“A good sign as to whether there is free speech is, is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like? If that is the case, we have free speech,” he said.
Musk said Twitter would abide by national laws that restrict speech around the world. Beyond that, he said, he’d be “very reluctant” to delete posts or permanently ban users who violate the company’s rules.
He had previously criticized Trump’s ban from social media in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Twitter and FacebookTrump’s account on the grounds that he incited violence.
“A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech,” Musk tweeted days after Trump was banned from both Facebook and Twitter.
How Musk responds to disagreement
Musk’s own history, however, puts in doubt his commitment to let people he doesn’t like speak. As the newsletter Popular Information has documented, Musk has regularly blocked users who criticize him or Tesla; threatened pro-union Tesla employees and company whistleblowers; and has aggressively gone after short-sellers and journalists who are critical of Tesla, sometimes calling their work “false” or “misleading.”
In 2018, he launched a vendetta against Linette Lopez, an Insider journalist critical of Tesla, a move which writer Felix Salmon called “obsessive and deranged.”
Musk’s popular tweets typically send a swarm of his social media fans directly to the accounts of reporters to harass them for hours or days.
Some academics say that Musk’s hands-off approach threatens to bring Twitter to its bad old days, when harassment and abuse were rampant.
“With Musk, his posturing of free speech — just leave everything up — that would be bad in and of itself,” said Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University. “If you stop moderating — with automated systems and human reviews — a site like Twitter, in the space of a short period of time, you would have a cesspool.”
Some former Twitter employees are also dismayed by Musk’s successful bid for the company.
“Twitter is going to let a man-child essentially take over their platform,” said Leslie Miley, a former Twitter employee who has also worked for Google and Apple. Miley, who was the only Black engineer at Twitter in a leadership position when he left the company in 2015, echoed doubts shared by others about Musk’s grasp of the platform’s complexities.
“I am not sure if Elon knows what he is getting,” Miley said. “He may just find that having Twitter is a lot different than wanting Twitter.”
Unfettered expression does not attract advertisers
A decade ago, a Twitter executive called the company “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” underscoring its commitment to untrammeled freedom of expression. But the company reversed itself after reports of online abuse and harassment became frequent.
In the U.S., a visceral 2014 article by journalist Amanda Hess exposed the incessant, vile harassment many women faced just for posting on Twitter or other online forums. Twitter also learned about the consequences of an unmoderated social platform: mainly, that it undercut their funding from advertisers.
Ads are how Twitter makes money, and companies generally don’t want their ads running against violent threats, hate speech that bleeds into incitement or incendiary information aimed at tipping elections or undermining public health.
Google, Barrett pointed out, quickly learned this lesson the hard way when majorand Anheuser-Busch yanked their ads after they ran ahead of YouTube videos produced by extremists in 2015.
Once it was clear just how unhealthy the conversation had gotten, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey spent years trying to improve what he called the “health” of the conversation on the platform.
The company was an early adopter of the “report abuse” button after U.K. member of parliament Stella Creasy received a barrage of rape and death threats on the platform. The online abuse was the result of a seemingly positive tweet in support of feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who successfully advocated for novelist Jane Austen to appear on a British banknote. Creasy’s online harasser was sent to prison for 18 weeks.
Twitter has continued to craft rules and invest in staff and technology that detected violent threats, harassment and misinformation that violated its policies. After evidence emerged that Russia used Twitter’s platforms to try to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, social media companies stepped up their efforts against political misinformation. All have struggled with defining “misinformation,” however, and been accused of both leaving up false content as well as over-censoring legitimate posts.
Hard to unwind moderation
The big question now is how far Musk wants to ratchet back these systems — and whether users and advertisers will stick around if he does.
Like Miley, the former Twitter engineer, experts who have studied content moderation and researched Twitter express doubt that Musk knows what he is getting into. After all, there are plenty of fledgling examples of so-called free speech-focused platforms that have been launched in the past few years as Twitter alternatives, largely by conservatives unhappy with the Twitter’s crackdown on hate, harassment and misinformation. Many such sites have struggled to deal with toxic content, and at least one has been cut off by its own technology providers in protest.
“This move just shows how effective (moderation features) have been to annoy those in power,” said Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame. “I would be worried as to how this would change Twitter’s values.”
The fact that no other bidders emerged in public before Musk’s deal was a sign that other would-be acquirers might find Twitter too difficult to improve, said Third Bridge analyst Scott Kessler.
“This platform is pretty much the same one we’ve had over the last decade or so,” Kessler said. “You’ve had a lot of smart people trying to figure out what they should do, and they’ve had trouble. It’s probably going to be tough to make a lot of headway.”
Even now, Americans say they’re more likely to be harassed on social media than any other online forum, with women, people of color and LGBTQ users reporting a disproportionate amount of that abuse. Roughly 80% of users believe the companies are still doing only a “fair or poor” job of handling that harassment, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults last year.