Tesla CEO Elon Musk has laid out some bold, if still vague, plans to transform Twitter into a place of “ultimate fun” once he buys the social media platform for $44 billion and takes it private.
But enacting what for now is little more than a mixture of vague principles and technical details could be considerably more complicated than it suggests.
Here’s what could happen if Musk goes ahead with his ideas about free speech, fighting spam, and opening up the “black box” of AI tools that amplify social media trends.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION SQUARE
Musk’s strongest priority, but also the one with the vaguest roadmap, is to make Twitter a “politically neutral” digital public square for global discourse that allows as much freedom of expression as the laws of each country allow.
He has acknowledged that his plans to reshape Twitter could anger the political left and mostly please the right. He hasn’t specified exactly what he will do with the permanently banned account of former President Donald Trump or other right-wing leaders whose tweets have violated the company’s restrictions against hate speech, violent threats or harmful misinformation.
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If Musk goes this direction, it could mean bringing back not just Trump, but “many, many others who were removed as a result of the QAnon conspiracies, the targeting of journalists and activists, and, of course, all the accounts they they were removed after January. 6,” said Joan Donovan, who studies disinformation at Harvard University. “That could potentially be hundreds of thousands of people.”
Musk has not ruled out suspending some accounts, but says such bans should be temporary. His latest criticism has focused on what he described as Twitter’s “incredibly inappropriate” 2020 blocking of a New York Post article on Hunter Biden, which the company has said was a mistake and corrected within 24 hours. .
OPEN SOURCE ALGORITHMS
Musk’s longstanding interest in AI is reflected in one of the more specific proposals he outlined in his merger announcement: a promise to “make algorithms open source to increase trust.” He is talking about systems that classify content to decide what appears in users’ feeds.
In part, what drives the mistrust, at least among Musk’s supporters, is the tradition among US political conservatives of “shadow banning” on social media. This is a supposedly invisible feature to reduce the reach of misbehaving users without disabling their accounts. There has been no evidence that the Twitter platform is biased against conservatives; studies have found the opposite when it comes to conservative media in particular.
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Musk has called for the underlying computer code that powers Twitter’s news feed to be released for public inspection at the coders’ hangout GitHub. But such “code-level transparency” gives users little insight into how Twitter works for them without the data being processed by algorithms, said Nick Diakopoulos, a computer scientist at Northwestern University.
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Diakopoulos said there are good intentions in Musk’s broader goal of helping people figure out why their tweets are being promoted or demoted and whether human moderators or automated systems are making those decisions. But that is not an easy task. Too much transparency about how individual tweets are ranked, for example, can make it easier for “fake people” to game the system and manipulate an algorithm to gain maximum exposure for their cause, Diakopoulos said.
`DEFEATING SPAM BOTS’
“Spam bots” that mimic real people have been a personal nuisance for Musk, whose popularity on Twitter has inspired countless copycat accounts using his image and name, often to promote cryptocurrency scams that appear to come from the Tesla CEO. .
Sure, Twitter users, including Musk, “don’t want spam,” said David Greene, director of civil liberties at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But who defines what counts as a spam bot?
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“You mean all the bots like, you know, if I follow a Twitter bot that just shows historical photos of fruit? I choose to follow that. Is that not allowed to exist? he said.
There are also plenty of spammy Twitter accounts run, at least partially, by real people, ranging from those selling products to those promoting polarizing political content to meddling in other countries’ elections.
‘AUTHENTICATE ALL HUMANS’
Musk has repeatedly said he wants Twitter to “authenticate all humans,” an ambiguous proposal that could be related to his desire to remove spam accounts from the website.
Increasing mundane identity checks, like two-factor authentication or pop-ups asking which of the six photos shows a school bus, could deter anyone from trying to amass an army of fake accounts.
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Musk may also be considering offering more people a “blue check” _ the checkmark displayed on notable Twitter accounts _ like Musk’s _ to prove they are who they say they are. Musk suggested that users could purchase the checkmarks as part of a premium service.
But some digital rights activists worry that these measures could lead to a “real name” policy similar to Facebook’s approach of forcing people to validate their full names and use them in their profiles. That would seem to contradict Musk’s free speech approach by muzzling anonymous whistleblowers or people living under authoritarian regimes where it can be dangerous if a dissenting message is attributable to a particular person.
TWITTER WITHOUT ADS?
Musk has floated the idea of an ad-free Twitter, even though it wasn’t one of the priorities outlined in the official merger announcement. That may be because removing the company’s primary way of making money would be a tall order, even for the richest person in the world.
Ads accounted for more than 92% of Twitter’s revenue in the fiscal quarter from January to March. Last year, the company launched a premium subscription service, known as Twitter Blue, but doesn’t seem to have made much headway in getting people to pay for it.
Musk has made it clear that he favors a stronger subscription-based model for Twitter that gives more people an ad-free option. That would also fit into his push to relax Twitter’s content restrictions, which brands largely favor because they don’t want their ads to be surrounded by hateful and offensive tweets.
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Musk has tweeted and voiced so many proposals for Twitter that it can be hard to know which ones he’s serious about. He joined the popular call for an “edit button” _ which Twitter says it is already working on _ that would allow people to correct a tweet shortly after posting it. A less serious proposal from Musk suggested turning Twitter’s headquarters in downtown San Francisco into a homeless shelter “since no one shows up anyway,” a comment taken more as a dig at Twitter’s workforce on Twitter. pandemic era than as an altruistic view of the building.
Musk did not respond to an emailed request to clarify his plans.
© 2022 Associated Press