Twitter has been bought by Elon Musk. After months of publicly toying with the idea, the world’s richest man successfully negotiated a $44 billion deal to acquire the social media platform.
Musk issued a statement Monday outlining a short list of the platform’s targets, many of which he has recently introduced to his 83 million Twitter followers. “Freedom of expression is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital public square where vital issues affecting the future of humanity are debated,” he wrote on Twitter. “I also want Twitter to be better than ever by adding new features, opening up the algorithms to increase trust, defeating spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”
But are Elon Musk’s ambitions realistic? Can you really transform Twitter into a less moderate forum where free speech thrives while also turning it into a service that generates more revenue from subscribers than from advertisers? Sure, he’s the world’s richest private citizen, but he’ll need Twitter to generate revenue, if only to pay off the banks that lent him $25 billion for the acquisition. Here’s a look at Musk’s proposed changes, where Twitter is considering them at the moment.
Absolutely free of expression
In a March tweet, Musk described himself as a “free speech absolutist.” Musk tweeted last January, three days after President Trump was suspended from Twitter for “risk of further incitement to violence” following the January 6 insurgency, “A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with the high tech of the west coast as the de facto medium. arbitrator of freedom of expression.
Musk’s hardline rhetoric on free speech contradicts Twitter’s recent evolution in this area. In 2018, the site came under fire after an MIT study found that misinformation spread faster on Twitter than true news. Since then, the company has increased its efforts to combat hate speech and increase user safety, including allowing users to flag false information. The controversial Libs of TikTok Twitter account was twice suspended for “hateful conduct,” and the company announced last week that it would ban ads that challenge widely accepted climate change research.
🚀💫♥️ Yesssss!!! ♥️💫🚀 pic.twitter.com/0T9HzUHuh6
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
However, misinformation, propaganda, and extremist views are still prevalent on the site, particularly regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Musk has declared that hate speech will be banned, he has yet to define the gray areas, and it appears that looser policies for content moderation may lead to more toxic behavior that Twitter has been trying to stamp out for years.
Also, fewer safeguards around speech can be detrimental to Twitter results: advertisers are less likely to pay for posts containing racism, bigotry, or sexism.
Musk advocated for the removal of all ads from Twitter in a now-deleted Tweet, writing: “The power of corporations to dictate policy is greatly increased if Twitter depends on ad dollars to survive.”
Twitter is almost completely dependent on ads to stay afloat financially. In the fourth quarter of 2021, the company reported advertising revenue of $1.41 billion out of total revenue of $1.57 billion. Twitter Blue, the company’s first consumer subscription package, launched in November and costs $3 per month to access “premium features.” According to the Wall Street Journal, CEO Parag Agrawal stated in February that Blue is “not critical” in meeting revenue projections.
Musk has expressed support for a subscription model, but wants to make it less expensive than it is now. At this month’s TED conference, he claimed that his interest in Twitter “is not a way to make money.” However, it will require the platform to continue generating income because it paid more than half with Morgan Stanley and other institutions. To pay off his debt, he’ll most likely need to grow Twitter’s ad revenue rather than just maintain it.
Human authentication and spam bots
On Twitter, Musk called spam bots the “most annoying problem.” Frequently promoting cryptocurrency-based scams these days, bots flood user feeds in an attempt to lure unsuspecting victims.
Twitter already has a rigorous process for weeding out fake accounts: The company uses software to detect automation patterns during the sign-up process. However, bot creators are getting more cunning and sophisticated, allowing many to slip past Twitter’s censors. Meanwhile, it’s much harder to detect manual forgeries, where real people create fake accounts to spread misinformation or defraud people. For example, a 21-year-old posed as members of the Trump family on Twitter for a year, even misleading the president.
Algorithms available for free
What people see on social media is often the result of complicated algorithms, the components of which are often closely guarded corporate secrets. Musk wants Twitter to open up its algorithms or publicly share the decision-making process that determines which tweets are shown to users. He argued at the TED conference that whether someone’s tweets “are emphasized or de-emphasized, that action should still be evident.” Many people agree with him in general, particularly in light of the 2021 Facebook documents, which demonstrated how biased algorithms can have disastrous consequences.
However, several experts have argued that the process of making such information public is much more complex than Musk claims. “The algorithm is just the tip of the iceberg…. “All this data that Twitter has is the tip of the iceberg,” Robin Burke, a professor of data science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told the Washington Post earlier this month. Even if the sprawling computer code were made public, Burke contends that much of it would be completely unreadable to most viewers, and would be especially useless without the embedded data, which contains a great deal of private and personal information.
Elon Musk is seriously thinking about building a new social network
An edit button
Musk polled his followers on April 4 to see if they wanted Twitter to add an Edit button, and they responded overwhelmingly: 73 percent of the 4.4 million votes were “yes.” Calls for an Edit button have long been heard on Twitter, while Reddit and Facebook already have Edit features that serve their users well.
However, while an edit button would allow users to correct typos, it would also allow bad actors to alter the record of public discourse. Trolls could make a widely agreed upon statement to get likes and retweets, only to later change it to something egregious. Hackers could gain access to government or corporate accounts and tamper with the data. Former Twitter software engineer Ben Sangster wrote that in 2015 he was part of an internal effort to create an Edit button, but his team “decided the potential for abuse was too high to proceed.”
Another minor glitch is that Twitter allows third-party apps and developers, including popular ones like TweetDeck, to download tweets in real time. There’s no way for Twitter to remember or edit a tweet once it’s been downloaded to a platform like TweetDeck, according to Lewis Mitchell, a professor of data science at the University of Adelaide, in a recent article.
Do you want an edit button?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 5, 2022
Twitter has stated that it is working on an Edit button, but has not provided any further details. According to a user who responded to Musk’s survey, the Edit button should only be available for a few minutes after someone posts, and the original Tweet should remain visible to the public. Musk described the proposal as “reasonable.”
While Musk faces numerous challenges, he has overcome formidable obstacles in the past, whether at SpaceX or Tesla. And, on Twitter, he claimed that he is open to hearing critics of him, no matter how strong: “I hope even my worst critics stay on Twitter, because that’s what free speech is all about.”
Will Trump return?
Donald Trump has stated that he will not return to the microblogging platform even if Musk reinstates his account, preferring to stick with his own Truth Social platform.
Following the riot at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. His posts were deemed inflammatory and Twitter issued a warning about the “risk of further incitement to violence.”
I hope even my worst critics stay on Twitter, because that’s what free speech is all about.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
Officials in US President Joe Biden’s administration are concerned that Musk’s takeover of Twitter will allow Trump and other Republican operatives who have been barred from using the platform to return.
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