Elon Musk says buying Twitter is about free speech. Does he know what that means?

The changes are coming to Twitter. And if we are to believe Elon Musk, these changes will transform the application in the name of preserving freedom of expression online.

But what exactly does this look like or mean to you? Not even Musk knows yet, and those changes won’t come overnight (Musk’s $ 44 billion bid to buy the company is expected to take several months to close).

Even if we don’t know the details, any potential change on Twitter, a platform used by nearly 400 million people, including some of the world’s most influential politicians, celebrities and public figures, will have a major impact. Already, many conservatives hope that Musk will reverse the company’s ban on former President Donald Trump (for now, Trump has said he will not return to Twitter if given the chance, but that could change). At the same time, some Twitter activists, civil rights leaders and employees are concerned about whether Musk’s absolutist approach to free speech will undermine the progress Twitter has made in recent years in reducing the prevalence of harassment. , hate speech and misinformation.

“The idea of ​​allowing more talk seems like a very positive thing,” said Renee DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “The question is, how is it? [Musk] Will this balance with the recognition that content moderation has always existed in the interest of creating online communities?

Musk has talked a lot about the virtues of free speech, but has no experience managing it on a social media platform where hundreds of millions of tweets are posted a day. However, the billionaire has offered some clues as to what his overall approach to content moderation on Twitter might be. In an interview at the TED conference earlier this month, Musk said he plans to “make a mistake” in leaving content, however controversial, and only removing content that is clearly in violation of the law, such as an incitement to violence. This would lead to a marked deviation from Twitter’s current content moderation policies, which in recent years have been aimed at limiting hate speech, harassment and other types of content to the platform it deems harmful.

In this week’s press release on his acquisition of Twitter, Musk also suggested less controversial changes to Twitter, such as “making open source algorithms to increase trust, defeat spam bots, and authenticate all the humans “. These are all areas that critics have asked Twitter to improve on in the past, and in some cases, the company is already working improvements. So we’ll have to see if Musk can run and how long it will take. Many who want him to take the helm want him to have improvements in turbocharged features, such as all-user authentication, and to regain what they consider the harshness of Twitter to moderate online speech.

Meanwhile, Musk’s motivations for buying Twitter seem a bit complicated. One of the highlights of this series of acquisitions is that Musk has publicly said that for him, it’s not about making money, it’s about promoting free speech. This slogan of free speech has earned Musk the support of many conservatives who view Twitter and other social media companies as unfairly discriminating against them. For Musk, it’s more than that: this deal is also a way to influence a major media platform used by some of the world’s most important politicians, celebrities, and leaders. Given Musk’s public battle with the SEC over his tweets, owning Twitter provides a valuable way for Musk to set the rules.

“In case of doubt, let the speech … let it exist. If it’s a gray area, I’d say the tweet exists,” Musk told the conference. “I think we want to be very reluctant to delete things.”

What Musk is talking about reflects the same ideology on which social media companies like Twitter and Facebook were founded: let everyone say what they want online. But in practice, almost every major platform, and even the most recent free speech absolutists like Parler, Gettr, and Trump’s Social Truth, have implemented some rules against things like hate speech, harassment or inappropriate content. This is because if they don’t, these platforms tend to turn into hateful, negative, or spammy content that isn’t good for users or advertisers. For example, when trolls flood someone with targeted harassment, they may be exercising their freedom of speech, but their bullying tactics may also deter that user from sharing their own views.

“One of the things we’ve seen on every social platform since the invention of the Internet is that the freedom of expression of some people is deployed to try to prevent the participation and assembly of other people,” he said. DiResta.

In his TED interview, Musk acknowledged some limitations to the idea of ​​letting freedom of speech be maintained forever. He said that in some cases, Twitter could de-prioritize content to make it less prominent in people’s feeds.

“In a case where there may be a lot of controversy, you wouldn’t necessarily want to promote this tweet,” Musk said. “I’m not saying I have all the answers here.”

Twitter has people on your site to find the answers to these difficult questions. Today, Twitter’s moderation and security teams, which include hundreds of employees, help make decisions about when to lower, tag, or delete tweets that violate its policies. It is unclear what Musk plans to do with this equipment, and some of the company are worried that it will shrink.

There are also fears that Musk’s plan to “open” Twitter’s algorithm could be difficult. The idea is that in cases where the company reduces certain tweets, Twitter should make it clear to users what is happening. As Musk said in his TED interview, this would show users that “there is no backstage manipulation, either algorithmically or manually.”

It’s an idea that, in theory, even some of Musk’s critics of content moderation agree with, but in practice, it needs much more scope. For starters, Twitter has a lot of algorithms, so what does Musk mean? Also, how would Twitter share its patented technology without giving away its secret sauce, thus allowing its competitors to copy its business?

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how Musk would manage Twitter. But what we do know is that his views on how much Twitter content should be moderated are drastically different from those of his predecessors when it comes to running the business. If managed well, this could lead to a more open and solid conversation in one of the most influential social networks in the world. But if mismanaged, this could mean that problems such as harassment, hate speech, and misinformation will only get worse.

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