Twitter may cost him $44 billion, but Elon Musk is getting an avalanche of free advice on how to run the social media giant.
Musk, who reached a deal Monday with the platform’s board of directors, claims he bought what he called “the digital town square” to ensure that it promotes free speech after years of criticism the San Francisco based company has silenced conservatives and other speech it arbitrarily brands harmful.
But the Tesla chief seems poised to do far more than merely tinker under the hood.
“I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans,” Musk added. “Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
Those users, including public figures, media outlets, tech gurus, and everyday users are poised to help. Some have ideas for improvements and others want Musk to shine a light on what went on inside the company before he took the reins. Sen. Josh Hawley — (R-MO), an outspoken critic of “Big Tech,” shared an open letter to Musk in which he congratulated the world’s richest man on his acquisition and called for a post-purchase audit.
“Twitter has largely evaded public accountability over the past several years,” Hawley wrote. “Since I’ve been in the Senate, I’ve sent a number of oversight inquiries to the company. These letters cover subjects as diverse as content moderation policies, viewpoint discrimination, suppression of content, and Twitter’s own security. Twitter, not surprisingly, has effectively ignored these requests.”
In particular, Hawley and other conservatives want to know how the decision was made to suspend the New York Post’s account over its now-vindicated reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop just before the 2020 election. In general, Hawley wants to know if Twitter’s suspension and shadow banning of users over the years represents a pattern of bias against conservatives.
Media outlets have suggestions of their own. The BBC, for example, suggested Musk could “loosen content rules,” remove advertisements, distinguish between real and fake accounts, and provide the ability to “edit” tweets. The New York Times speculated that Musk may seek to address “free speech and content moderators,” reinstate high-profile banned figures such as former president Donald Trump, and uncover “the algorithm.”
But while Musk’s acquisition of Twitter — and the prospect of a powerful tool for political expression may soon be more ideologically tolerant — has sparked giddiness among conservatives, there may be cause to pump the brakes, at least until Musk’s intentions become more clear.
Free speech and content moderation
The most likely area of change falls squarely in the realm of free speech. In recent years, almost every social media platform has tightened its control on content, often under political pressure from the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential race and the lead up to the 2020 election.
Musk has been consistent on his views on free speech, often bordering on absolutism. That perspective is currently almost non-existent on the mainstream internet.
“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?” Musk pondered during a recent TED event. “If that is the case, we have free speech. It’s damn annoying when someone you don’t like says something you don’t like. That is the sign of a healthy, functioning free speech situation.”
Bending Twitter to his view of free speech could be one of the easiest changes for Musk to implement. In plain terms, free speech online is restricted by content moderation, which is imposed according to internal policies and principles defined by vague metrics like “hate speech” and “safety.” Twitter lays out these metrics in their “Twitter Rules,” which the new boss could adjust on Day 1. The technical obstacles of implementation would be nearly nonexistent.
“The algorithm” and making Twitter open source
Musk has called for making Twitter’s algorithms “open source.” In Computer Science, an algorithm is simply a set of rules which describes a process, not unlike a “recipe” for a computer. Massive platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are built upon thousands of interconnected algorithms and sub-algorithms, all of which serve a different purpose. Opening up all of Twitter’s algorithms to the public could not only prove difficult, it may simply be bad business. The costly intellectual property that helped make Twitter a $44 billion company would be anyone’s to replicate. Surely Musk isn’t buying a company simply to open its guts to the world.
Musk could make certain parts of Twitter open source, and it is possible that exposing some specific parts of “the algorithm” to which he referred could provide some transparency without giving away crucial company secrets. Many aren’t looking for trade secrets in order to build their own platforms. Instead, they more likely want access to Twitter’s ranking algorithms, which decide which posts users see; profile suggestion algorithms, which suggest who users may want to follow; and comment-moderation algorithms, which decide which replies may be in some way offensive, and must therefore be hidden from view.
Still, these complex pieces of Twitter’s infrastructure represent valuable intellectual property and are likely too complicated for most to understand when considered as part of the platform’s programmatic ecosystem. For Twitter to achieve meaningful algorithm transparency, it would likely need to release them to trusted experts figures who could determine their purpose before distilling the details in plain-language overviews.
Twitter already claims to do exactly that.
Fake accounts and bots
Prior to reaching a deal to buy Twitter, Musk promised to “defeat the spam bots or die trying,” and to “authenticate all real humans” on the platform. To underscore the need for this, he has referenced the out-sized audiences of several high-profile figures who have lower levels of engagement — a tell-tale sign that many of their followers may be fake.
There are multiple reasons why the removal of fake (or even anonymous) accounts would be beneficial. Doing so would give a more realistic impression of user feedback and ideological breakdown, all while undermining the ability of foreign entities — such as Russia, China and Iran — to manipulate the American public narrative. In a world where follower count and virality are seen as metrics of societal importance, the proportion of fake follows and fake likes/retweets is a crucial factor.
However, solving such a problem is far more complicated than many acknowledge, given that multiple social media platforms already struggle to verify the authenticity of accounts. Twitter allows the use of anonymous accounts for various valid reasons and requiring heightened levels of user verification opens up significant privacy concerns. Finally, forcing users to identify themselves may have an impact on the existence of true free speech in certain countries.
Edit button, longer posts, no ads…
In recent days, a wide array of potential changes to Twitter features have been suggested. Among them: creating an “edit button,” which could allow people to edit previously-immutable tweets; allowing posts to exceed 280 characters; and the removal of advertisements. They could all be achieved, and perhaps easily. But each would represent a fundamental shift in the platform itself, with potential consequences for its user base.
The ability to edit tweets, for example, could be its own can of worms. Would edits be limited to shortly after the original post — in a similar fashion to Gmail’s “undo” functionality? If not, how would engagement with the original content be sorted from the new, edited content? Would the content be marked as “edited,” and if so, how? Would Twitter notify those who engaged with the old content that it has been updated?
In an increasingly fast-moving and online world, Twitter often acts as a real-time pulse point in our culture. But would this change if tweets were no longer snapshots of the moment they were published? We already see media outlets quietly changing headlines after their original reporting consumed the oxygen of online attention. The same could happen on Twitter, but at a much higher velocity.
Longer posts would allow Twitter to address the issue of low-context debate, but they could also impact what makes the platform unique, even if it did solve a growing problem — while threads allow people to explore more complex ideas in depth, it’s increasingly easier to cherry-pick comments and take them out of context. And in a society which works to consume data (not information) ever more quickly, will people look elsewhere if Twitter “slowed down”?
Finally, the removal of advertisements would be a pivotal change in the company’s business model. Given that Twitter currently garners approximately 90% of its revenue from ad sales, amounting to $1.41 billion in the last quarter of 2021 alone, what could fill this monetary void?
One potential solution would be to revamp Twitter’s existing subscription model, Twitter Blue. But would this force all users to pay for the service? And even if some users paid for more features, would this impact the Musk’s vision of true liberty for Twitter’s future?
Uncovering Twitter’s past ills
Hawley’s call for Musk to uncover details of Twitter’s past could include exposing the truth about the censorship of the Hunter Biden story, who was suspended or shadow-banned and why, and whether there is an ongoing issue of political bias within Twitter.
Musk has called the silencing of the Hunter Biden laptop story “incredibly inappropriate,” but it is not clear that his criticism of Twitter and calls for freer expression of ideas is rooted in partisan politics. In fact, his politics are something of a closely held mystery, with his donations going to members of both parties. It could be a mistake for conservatives to believe they have an outsized say in the direction Musk takes Twitter, especially when it comes to actions that would be to their political benefit.
Musk has expressed views which align with some conservative principles in the past, such as free speech and tax policy. But he has denied being a conservative, and claimed on another occasion (perhaps un-seriously) that he was a “socialist,” but “not the kind that shifts resources from most productive to least productive.”
Indeed, Musk argued that Twitter should be “politically neutral” in order to “deserve public trust.” This “effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally,” he added.
Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is fascinating, from a technological perspective and in terms of its potential cultural impact. With one of Silicon Valley’s major communication platforms moving directly against the tide of governmental control of speech, it is likely that Twitter will find itself at the center of the growing debate over the nature of online freedom.
But all we can do now is wait to see what online freedom means to Elon Musk.
Ultimately, it will be his company. We’re just passengers, along for the ride.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.