The harmful implications of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover
In his aim of reducing the moderation of online content, Musk is ensuring that Twitter will become an even more incendiary and brutish forum
On Monday afternoon, Twitter’s board of directors accepted a $44 billion takeover bid from Elon Musk, who sits at the top of the list of world’s richest people with an estimated net worth of $265 billion.
Describing himself as a “free speech absolutist”, Musk maintains that his primary goal for Twitter is to create an “inclusive arena for free speech”. He said he aims to improve the platform by introducing new features, making the algorithms open-source, and promising to “defeat the spam bots or die trying!”
It is undoubtedly true that Twitter has a problem when it comes to the prominence and sheer number of spam bots and trolls that occupy the platform; anyone who’s spent any sort of dedicated time on the site would attest to this. Having a Twitter account comes with the unspoken caveat of having to endure some degree of trolling or needless aggression.
Nevertheless, despite its many flaws, Twitter remains a social media goliath. The other side of the coin when it comes to Twitter being such a hotbed for debate, is that the platform has managed to cement itself, as Musk himself puts it, as a “de facto public square” for online opinion. It’s where seemingly everyone goes to share their take on the latest social and political issues, and this garners the platform a significant influence.
We have seen the implications of this influence time and time again; one only need look at the role the platform played, or failed to play, in the lead-up to the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th last year – a role that even Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has acknowledged.
As we all know, one of the consequences of the riot was then-President Donald Trump being barred from the platform in recognition of the risk that more violence could be incited as a result of what was happening on Twitter. But Musk’s version of Twitter, one that upholds the tenant of free speech above all else, would not be likely to react the same at all.
The fact is, although certain things Musk is aiming towards should indeed be advocated for (like algorithm transparency and bot removal), these changes are not going to be where we see the true implications of his takeover. The most significant of Musk’s proposed changes for the platform revolves around his advocacy for ‘absolute’ free speech.
In his aim of reducing the moderation of online content, Musk is ensuring that Twitter will become an even more incendiary and brutish forum. As it stands, Twitter is already struggling to stay consistent with its content moderation, and the consequences of this are seen in every instance of harassment and misinformation that occurs on the site. Twitter under Musk only promises to do more of the same.
The harmful consequences of lax online moderation demonstrates the importance of having responsible people at the helm of our online platforms, but Musk’s own Twitter escapades reveal him as anything but. He’s used the platform to ridicule his critics, violate securities law, spread misinformation etc., and is notoriously a troll himself – from body-shaming Bill Gates to calling a British cave explorer who helped rescue 12 Thai schoolboys a “pedo guy”. Coupling this with his poor track record of tackling discrimination and abuse within his existing companies, and it’s hard to be optimistic about what Musk’s ‘free speech’ Twitter will be like.
Musk is a technically-literate man; he understands that algorithms push controversial posts to the top, and that an ‘absolute free speech’ platform will not reflect public opinion – just the opinion of loudest and crudest shouter. Fortunately for him though, the legions of bootlicking fans that his online antics earned him are the same people who would advocate for a platform that rewards trolling like this. Musk is keenly aware that his ownership of Twitter serves to benefit him greatly – giving him a space to spew anything he wants without filter, promote himself and his work, and shut down any critics who might be in the way.
In buying Twitter, Musk has handed himself the world’s loudest microphone, and somehow managed to market it as a win for free speech and democracy in the process. However, given the added emphasis lawmakers have been placing on protecting digital users in recent years, maybe there is hope yet that the full extent of Musk’s vision will not come to fruition. I hope so anyways, because in the interest of free speech, I think handing the world’s richest man the world’s largest microphone is probably the last thing free speech needs.