What could Twitter look like under Elon Musk?

29 Apr 2022

Elon Musk at the Bloomberg Vanity Fair After Party in 2015. Image: Haddad Media/Bloomberg (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Elon Musk is set to take over Twitter. Now what? We asked DCU’s Prof Jane Suiter how the world’s richest man might change the platform.

“I love Twitter. Twitter is the closest thing we have to a global consciousness,” platform co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted earlier this week, in a thread expressing his heartfelt support for Elon Musk’s $44bn takeover of the social media company.

“In principle, I don’t believe anyone should own or run Twitter,” he went on. “Solving for the problem of it being a company however, Elon is the singular solution I trust. I trust his mission to extend the light of consciousness.”

Musk plans to make the social media platform, which now has 229m daily active users, “better than ever”. He said when the takeover deal was announced that he wanted to enhance the product with new features, make the algorithms open source, defeat spam bots and authenticate all humans.

But as the world’s richest person – who has called himself a “free speech absolutist” and criticised content moderation – takes control of one of the world’s most popular social platforms, many are contemplating what the takeover could mean for the future of the Twitter.

Musk’s brand of free speech

“Musk has an evangelist view of the internet as an open space and democratising force,” Prof Jane Suiter, director of the Institute for Future Media, Democracy and Society at Dublin City University (DCU), told SiliconRepublic.com.

“But what researchers and most other people have discovered over the last decade is that that promise fell through and that large parts of the internet are full of content that can be detrimental to people’s mental health.”

Suiter, who lectures at DCU’s School of Communications, thinks that Musk’s vision of freedom of speech – one with reduced moderation for content such as hate speech and cyber bullying – might be consistent with some American values, but is generally frowned upon in European regulatory circles.

“With Musk’s free speech absolutism, it would allow people who want to make up anything to say whatever they want without presumably Twitter intervening.”

Social media platforms such as Twitter have the power to connect people and give voices to those who might not be heard otherwise. But these platforms have also been used to spread disinformation, incite mob violence and crack down upon minorities in some parts of the world.

“There’s a fine line between what’s legal and what’s illegal. So where do you actually go to, for instance, protect teenagers from cyber bullying under an evangelical free speech version of Twitter?” asked Suiter.

Could any good come of it?

While many are worried that Musk taking charge might exacerbate existing problems with Twitter, is there any substance to Dorsey’s argument that Musk’s goal of creating a “maximally trusted and broadly inclusive” platform is the right one?

Suiter thinks that while Twitter is obviously not perfect, Musk probably does have some tricks up his sleeves that could improve aspects of the platform. For instance, his plans to make Twitter’s algorithm open sourced and transparent may be welcome, as this is something that is already on the radar of European regulators.

“Open source algorithms are part of the Digital Services Act (DSA) legislation, so that’s something all platforms are going to be asked for in the next few years anyway,” said Suiter. “People need to know why things are appearing in their feeds and what decisions the algorithm is making.”

The DSA is a landmark piece of legislation agreed by the EU last week. It demands that tech companies take control of content moderation, among other measures, with its core principle being that what is illegal offline will be illegal online.

Other moves put forward such as introducing an edit button and a promise to crack down on Twitter’s infamous bot infestation are also potential positives if Musk takes over, but Suiter was sceptical of if he can be given much credit – since they’re things Twitter is working on anyway.

“The edit button could be a good outcome, depending on the length of time given to make an edit,” she said. “Obviously you don’t want to write a tweet that a thousand people are going to retweet, only to have it edited to mean the opposite.”

And as for his bot promises, Suiter said that Twitter “is getting rid of bots all the time anyway, so it’s not clear that Musk actually has a magic solution to this”.

Should I stay or should I go?

Like most other things flooding social media, news of Musk’s takeover has divided Twitter users across the world.

Many who admire Musk for his entrepreneurial experience and success with Tesla and SpaceX welcome his acquisition plan, while those who aren’t fans of the controversial figure have considered leaving the platform, such as TV star Jameela Jamil.

Meanwhile, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson said he’s coming back to the platform – with many wondering if Twitter-exiled former US president Donald Trump will make a return too.

With users potentially leaving Twitter, Suiter noted that it is imperative to have legislation that ensures interoperability between apps.

“If you leave Twitter, you should be able to automatically invite all of your contacts to, for example, Discord, or wherever it is you’re going,” she said, adding that most social media platforms today are entirely standalone.

“We’ve had all of these platforms before, and they’ve never taken off because when you go on them – none of your friends are there.”

Elon Musk at the Bloomberg Vanity Fair After Party 2015. Image: Haddad Media/Bloomberg (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic