Elon Musk says buying Twitter is free speech. Does he know what that means?
Changes are coming to Twitter. And according to Elon Musk, these changes will change the application in the name of preserving free speech on the Internet.
But what exactly does that look like or mean for your account? Even Musk doesn’t know yet, and these changes won’t happen overnight (Musk’s $44 billion offer to buy the company is expected to close in a few months).
Even if we don’t know the details, any potential changes to Twitter – a platform used by nearly 400 million people, including some of the most powerful politicians, celebrities and public figures – will go a long way. Many conservatives are already hoping Musk will lift the company’s ban on former President Donald Trump (so far Trump says he won’t return to Twitter given the chance, but that could change). At the same time, some activists, civil rights leaders and Twitter staff are concerned that Musk’s absolutist approach to free speech will undo the progress Twitter has made over the past few years in reducing the prevalence of harassment, hate speech and disinformation.
“The idea of allowing more speech sounds very positive,” said Rene DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “The question is how [Musk] are you going to balance that with the recognition that content moderation has always existed in the interest of building online communities?”
Musk has talked a lot about the virtues of free speech, but he has no experience managing it on a social media platform where hundreds of millions of tweets posted per day. However, the billionaire offered a few hints about what his overall approach to content moderation on Twitter might look like. In an interview on Previous TED conference This month, Musk said he plans to “get it wrong” by keeping content – no matter how controversial – and only removing content that clearly violates the law, such as incitement to violence. This would be a sharp departure from Twitter’s current content moderation policy, which in recent years has aimed to limit hate speech, harassment and other types of content on the platform that it deems harmful.
In a press release this week about his acquisition of Twitter, Musk also proposed less controversial changes to Twitter, including “making algorithms open to increase trust, defeat spambots, and authenticate all people.” These are all areas that critics have urged Twitter to improve in the past, and in some cases the company already working on improvements. So we’ll have to see if Musk can complete it and how long it takes. Many of those who want him at the helm want him to speed up feature improvements like authenticating all users and reduce what they see as Twitter’s clumsy moderation of people’s speech online.
Meanwhile, Musk’s motives for buying Twitter seem somewhat complex. One of the most notable aspects of this takeover saga is that Musk has publicly stated that for him, it’s not about making money, it’s about promoting free speech. This free speech slogan has earned Musk the support of many conservatives who feel that Twitter and other social networks unfairly discriminate against them. For Musk, this is something more: this deal is also a way to influence a major media platform used by some of the most important politicians, celebrities and world leaders. Given Musk’s own public battle with the SEC Beyond his tweets, owning Twitter gives Musk a valuable way to set the rules.
“If there is any doubt, let the speech … let it exist. If this is a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist,” Musk said at the conference. “I really think we want to just be very reluctant to remove things.”
What Musk is talking about reflects the same ideology that social networks like Twitter and Facebook were based on: let everyone say what they want on the Internet. But in practice, almost every major platform — and even more recent absolutist free speech platforms like Parler, Gettr, and Trump’s own Truth Social — make some rules against things like hate speech, harassment or inappropriate content. This is because if they don’t, these platforms tend to turn into cesspools of hateful, negative, or spam content that is unsuitable for both users and advertisers. For example, when trolls inundate someone with targeted harassment, they may use their free speech, but their scare tactics also potentially discourage that user from sharing their own points of view.
“One of the things we’ve seen on every social platform since the invention of the internet is that some people’s free speech is being used to prevent other people from participating and gathering,” DiResta said.
In his TED interview, Musk acknowledged some of the limitations of the idea of permanently preserving free speech. He said that in some cases, Twitter could potentially lower the priority of content to make it less visible in people’s feeds.
“In a case where there might be a lot of controversy, you don’t have to promote this tweet,” Musk said. “I’m not saying I have all the answers here.”
There are people on Twitter who can find answers to these difficult questions. Currently, Twitter’s moderation and security teams, who are reportedly include hundreds of employees, help make decisions about when to downvote, flag or delete tweets that violate its rules. It’s unclear what Musk plans to do with these teams, and some at the company fear he’ll cut back.
There are also concerns that Musk’s plan to “discover” the Twitter algorithm could prove difficult. The idea is that when a company downgrades certain tweets, Twitter should let users know what’s going on. As Musk said in his TED interview, this will show users that “there is no behind-the-scenes manipulation, either algorithmic or manual.”
In theory, even some critics of Musk on content moderation agree with this idea, but in practice it needs much more specificity. To begin with, there are a lot of algorithms on Twitter, so which one is Musk referring to? Also, how is Twitter going to share its proprietary technology without giving away the secret sauce, thereby allowing its competitors to copy their business?
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how Musk will run Twitter. But what we do know is that his views on how much Twitter should moderate content are starkly different from those of his predecessors in running the company. Done right, this could lead to a more open and trusted realm of communication on one of the most influential social networks in the world. But if handled poorly, it could mean that problems like harassment, hate speech and misinformation will only get worse.