Twitter has been purchased 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 on Monday outlining a short list of platform goals, many of which he has recently floated to his 83 million Twitter followers. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where vital issues affecting humanity’s future are debated,” he wrote on Twitter. “I also want to make Twitter 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 he truly transform Twitter into a less-moderated forum where free speech thrives while also making it a service that generates more revenue from subscribers than advertisers? Sure, he’s the world’s wealthiest private citizen, but he’ll need Twitter to generate revenue, if only to repay the banks that loaned him $25 billion for the acquisition. Here’s a look at Musk’s proposed changes, where Twitter stands on them right now.
Absolutely free speech
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 of violence” following the Jan. 6 insurgency, “A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”
Musk’s hardline rhetoric on free speech contradicts Twitter’s recent evolution in this area. In 2018, the site was chastised 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 Twitter account Libs of TikTok was suspended twice for “hateful conduct,” and the company announced last week that it would prohibit advertisements that challenge widely accepted climate change research.
🚀💫♥️ Yesss!!! ♥️💫🚀 pic.twitter.com/0T9HzUHuh6
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
However, misinformation, propaganda, and extremist views are still prevalent on the site, particularly in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Musk has stated that hate speech will be prohibited, he has yet to define the gray areas, and it appears that more lax policies for content moderation may lead to more of the toxic behavior that Twitter has been attempting to eradicate for years.
Furthermore, fewer safeguards around speech may be detrimental to Twitter’s bottom line: advertisers may be less likely to pay for posts that contain racism, bigotry, or sexism.
Musk argued for the removal of all advertisements from Twitter in a now-deleted Tweet, writing, “The power of corporations to dictate policy is greatly enhanced if Twitter depends on advertising money to survive.”
Twitter is almost entirely reliant on advertisements to stay afloat financially. In Q4 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, was launched in November, costing $3 per month for access to “premium features.” According to the Wall Street Journal, CEO Parag Agrawal stated in February that Blue is “not critical” to meeting revenue projections.
Musk has expressed support for a subscription model, but he wants it to be less expensive than it is now. At this month’s TED conference, he stated that his interest in Twitter is “not a way to make money.” However, he will require the platform to continue earning revenue because he paid for more than half of it with Morgan Stanley and other institutions. To service his debt, he will most likely need to increase Twitter’s ad revenue rather than just maintain it.
Human authentication and spam bots
On Twitter, Musk referred to spam bots as the “single most annoying problem.” Bots, which frequently promote cryptocurrency-based scams these days, flood users’ feeds in an attempt to entice unsuspecting victims.
Twitter already has a rigorous process in place for weeding out fake accounts: the company uses software to detect patterns of automation during the registration process. However, botmakers are becoming more devious and sophisticated, allowing many to slip past Twitter’s censors unnoticed. Meanwhile, it is much more difficult to detect manual fakes, in which real people create fake accounts in order to spread misinformation or defraud people. For example, one 21-year-old impersonated Trump family members on Twitter for a year, even fooling the President.
Algorithms available for free
What people see on social media is usually the result of complicated algorithms, the components of which are often closely guarded Big Tech secrets. Musk wants Twitter to open-source its algorithms, or publicly share the decision-making process that determines which tweets are shown to users. He argued at the TED conference that if someone’s tweets are “emphasized or de-emphasized, that action should remain apparent.” Many people agree with him in general, particularly in light of the 2021 Facebook papers, which demonstrated how skewed algorithms can have disastrous consequences.
Several experts, however, have argued that the process of making such information public is far more complex than Musk claims. “The algorithm is merely the tip of the iceberg…. “All of this data that Twitter has is the tip of the iceberg,” Robin Burke, a professor of information science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told the Washington Post earlier this month. Even if the sprawling computer code was made public, Burke contends that much of it would be completely illegible to most viewers—and would be especially useless without the inserted data, which contains a wealth of private and personal information.
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 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 in order to gain likes and retweets, only to change it later to something heinous. Hackers could gain access to government or corporate accounts and alter 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 that the potential for abuse was too high to move forward.”
Another minor technical issue is that Twitter allows third-party apps and developers, including popular ones like TweetDeck, to download tweets in real time. There is no way for Twitter to recall or edit a tweet once it has been downloaded by a platform like TweetDeck, according to Lewis Mitchell, a data science professor 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 one user who responded to Musk’s poll, the Edit button should only be available for a few minutes after someone publishes, 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 stated that he is open to hearing from his critics, no matter how loud they are: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
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 US Capitol riots 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 of violence.”
I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
Officials in US President Joe Biden’s administration are concerned that Musk’s acquisition of Twitter will allow Trump and other Republican operatives who have been barred from using the platform to return.
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