When the idea behind Twitter first hatched at a meeting in 2006, the service was envisioned as a way for people to message their friends.
Since then, the San Francisco company has grown to encompass 217 million daily active users and transformed into a public square where prominent world leaders communicate.
But like other social media platforms, Twitter has also become a tool of politicization and struggles to find a balance between promoting free speech and countering misinformation.
Those tensions surfaced on Thursday, when Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter for $43 billion became public, raising concerns among industry watchers over how he would handle content on the Internet. one of the most popular social media sites in the world.
Musk, an avid Twitter user with 81.8 million followers, expressed his intention to take the company private and Twitter’s “potential to be the platform for free speech around the world.”
“Twitter has tremendous potential,” Musk said in a letter to Twitter’s chairman of the board. “I’ll unblock it.”
But Musk’s own track record on Twitter raised concerns about what kind of content he would allow on the site. He once called a British rescue diver a “pedo guy” on Twitter. In 2019, Musk came under fire from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for tweeting that he had secured financing to take Tesla private, which sent Tesla shares soaring. The two eventually settled, with Musk quitting his role as Tesla chairman and Musk and Tesla each paying $20 million to the SEC.
Musk has called himself a “free speech absolutist,” and many believe that if he owned Twitter he would likely give people banned from the platform a second chance, including the former president. Trump, and would be more lax on the types of content allowed. .
Twitter banned Trump last year for tweets related to the election, which Twitter said could inspire others to replicate the violent insurgency that occurred on January 6, 2021, when hundreds of people stormed the US Capitol to protest the election results.
“I fear that if Twitter were to become less active in moderating misinformation on the platform, it would lead to further violence as we saw on January 6, and it would further undermine our democracy which depends on having and to believe shared facts,” Kevin Esterling, professor of public policy and political science at UC Riverside, wrote in an email.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, social media platforms faced increasing pressure to moderate content, but it proved difficult.
Companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have hired moderators to flag any content that may violate company guidelines or rules. But every day large volumes of information are uploaded to these platforms, making it difficult to monitor them. On YouTube alone, the company says more than 500 hours of content are uploaded every minute.
Recently, social media sites have come under fire for any role they may have played in spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and false claims that Trump has won the 2020 presidential election. Political leaders have also discussed changes to the law to hold tech companies more accountable for the content they promote.
“There’s definitely increased pressure for social media sites and other public information sites to take responsibility for making decisions about what’s on their platform,” said Karen North, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Although some users complain about content they find offensive or violate content rules, social media companies often decide to remove content. These technology companies benefit from broad legal protections because they are not considered as publishers but as channels for the distribution of information.
“Social media companies are private entities and have no obligation to preserve free speech,” Esterling said. “Instead, social media companies are balancing the removal of harmful information against their for-profit interest in promoting content that users find appealing.”
Some analysts, however, think Musk could be good for Twitter.
Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research, believes that Musk would improve Twitter as a platform and that Musk’s background in artificial intelligence and automation could help solve some of the content moderation issues that Twitter is facing. confronted with.
“Why can you have really weird adult porn sites on Twitter and sitting government members are censored?” Wang said. “These are the kinds of questions that arise but can be resolved.”
Twitter, while popular among reporters and journalists, is even smaller than its rivals. For example, Facebook had 1.93 billion daily active users on average in December and Snapchat had 319 million daily active users.
“The product has been stagnating for some time, and [Musk is] is going to bring some life to the product, and I think that makes it exciting,” Wang said.
Musk on Thursday gave a window into changes he would like to see in Twitter, including open-sourcing its algorithm so there is more transparency about how tweets are promoted or de-emphasized. He said Twitter should abide by the laws of 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 wouldn’t necessarily want to promote that tweet,” Musk said during a discussion at an event. TED 2022. “I’m not saying I have all the answers here, but I think we want to be very reluctant to take things down or just be very careful with permanent bans.”
Although Musk has said he doesn’t care about the economics behind his offering, owning Twitter could give him access to valuable data – such as how people interact with trending information – that could benefit his other businesses.
“Twitter is built very efficiently and very robustly in collecting and using data,” North said. “Elon Musk is no stranger to the power of data, so he would buy a platform that collects really valuable data for anyone running a business.”
He would also control a very powerful news channel, North said.
“When I look at Twitter, I don’t see a social network, I see a news network,” North said. “It’s a network of people who are communicators, either journalists or people who act like journalists passing on information to their audience.”
Some expressed doubts about whether Musk would take up his offer, and investor reaction to the news was mixed. Twitter stock closed down 1.7% at $45.08 on Thursday. The company said in a statement that its board would consider Musk’s proposal.
“Musk may not be serious about taking over Twitter and is trolling the platform for attention,” Esterling said. “However, he has very strong views on unfettered speech, and it’s also possible that he’s interested in making the platform more of a Wild West of unfettered speech.”
Times writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.