What Elon Musk’s Twitter bid says about social media

When the idea for Twitter was first floated at a meeting in 2006, the service was conceived as a way for people to exchange messages with their friends.

Since then, the San Francisco-based company has grown to 217 million daily active users and has become a city square where prominent world leaders converse.

But like other social media platforms, Twitter has also become a tool of politicization and has struggled to strike a balance between encouraging free speech and combating disinformation.

Those tensions came to the fore Thursday with Elon Musk’s $43 billion bid to buy Twitter, sparking concerns from industry observers about how he would handle content on one of the world’s most popular social networks.

Musk, an avid Twitter user with 81.8 million followers, expressed his intention to take the company private and Twitter “with the potential to become a platform for free speech around the world.”

“Twitter has exceptional potential,” Musk said in a letter to Twitter’s chairman. “I will open it.”

But Musk’s own track record on Twitter raises concerns about what type of content he will allow on the site. He once called a British cave diver “pedophile“On Twitter. In 2019, Musk was criticized by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for a tweet that he secured funding take Tesla private, which boosted Tesla shares. In the end, they agreed: Musk left his position as chairman of Tesla, and Musk and Tesla each paid the SEC $20 million.

Musk has described himself as a “free speech absolutist” and many people believe that if he owned Twitter, he would probably give people blocked on the platform, including former President Trump, a second chance and be more lenient about it. what types of content are allowed. .

Twitter banned Trump last year for election-related tweets that Twitter believes may inspire others to replicate the violent uprising that took place Jan. 6, 2021when hundreds of people stormed the US Capitol to protest the election results.

“I am concerned that if Twitter becomes less active in moderating disinformation on the platform, it will lead to more violence, as we saw in January. 6, and it will further undermine our democracy, which depends on having and believing in shared facts,” Kevin Esterling, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside, wrote in an email.

In connection with Jan. 6 Capitol riot, social media platforms have faced increasing pressure to moderate content, but this has proven difficult.

Companies including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have hired moderators to flag any content that may violate the company’s policies or policies. But large amounts of information are uploaded to these platforms every day, making monitoring difficult. Only on youtube company saysmore than 500 hours of content are uploaded every minute.

Recently, social media sites have been criticized for the role they may have played in spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and false claims that Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Political leaders also discussed changes to the law to hold tech companies more accountable for what content they promote.

“There has definitely been increased pressure on social media sites and other public information sites to take charge of deciding what is on their platform,” said Karen North, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

While some users complain about content they find offensive or in violation of content guidelines, social networks often decide whether to remove content. These technology companies have broad legal guarantees because they are not seen as publishers, but as channels for the dissemination of information.

“Social media companies are private individuals and have no obligation to preserve free speech,” Esterling said. “Instead, social media companies are balancing the suppression of harmful information with their interest in profit in order to promote content that users find attractive.”

However, some analysts believe that Musk can be useful for Twitter.

Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research, believes Musk will improve Twitter as a platform and that his experience with artificial intelligence and automation can help with some of the content moderation challenges Twitter faces.

“Why can you have really weird adult porn sites on Twitter, while sitting government members get censored?” Wang said. “These are questions that are asked, but that can be solved.”

Twitter, although popular among newsmakers and journalists, is still less than its competitors. For example, in December, Facebook had an average of 1.93 billion daily active users, while Snapchat had 319 million daily active users.

“The product has pretty much been stagnant for quite some time and [Musk is] I’m going to breathe life into the product and I think that’s what makes it exciting,” Wang said.

On Thursday, Musk talked about the changes he would like to see on Twitter, including open-sourceing his algorithm so there’s more transparency about how tweets are promoted or downvoted. He said that Twitter must comply with the laws in the countries where it operates.

“If it’s a gray area, let the tweet exist, but obviously in a case where there’s a lot of controversy, you don’t necessarily want to promote that tweet,” Musk said during a discussion at the TED 2022 event. “I’m not saying I have there are all the answers here, but I really think we want to be very reluctant to remove things or just be very careful with permanent blocks.”

While Musk said he doesn’t care about the economics of his offering, owning Twitter could give him access to valuable data, such as how people interact with popular information, that could benefit his other businesses.

“Twitter is built in such a way that it is very efficient and very strong at collecting and using data,” North said. “Elon Musk knows the power of data first hand, so he would buy a platform that collects really valuable data for everyone who is in business.”

According to North, he will also control a very powerful information channel.

“When I look at Twitter, I don’t see a social network, but an information network,” North said. “It’s a network of people who are communicators, or journalists, or people who act like journalists, bringing information to their audience.”

Some expressed doubt that Musk would go along with his proposal, and investor reaction to the news was mixed. Shares of Twitter fell 1.7% to $45.08 on Thursday. The company said in a statement that its board will consider Musk’s proposal.

“Maybe Musk isn’t serious about taking over Twitter and he might be trolling the platform to get attention,” Esterling said. “However, he has very strong views on free speech, and it is also possible that he is interested in making the platform more like the wild west of unrestricted speech.”

Times Staff Writer Matt Pierce contributed to this report.