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

Changes are coming to Twitter. And if we’re to believe Elon Musk, those changes will transform the app in the name of preserving free speech online.

But what exactly does that look like or mean for your account? Not even Musk knows yet, and these changes won’t be coming overnight (Musk’s offer of $44 billion to buy the company is expected to take several months to close).

Even if we don’t know the details, any potential change to 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 are hoping that Musk will reverse the company’s ban on former President Donald Trump (for now, Trump has said that he won’t return to Twitter if given the chance, but that could change). At the same time, some activists, civil rights leaders, and Twitter employees are worried about whether Musk’s absolutist approach to free speech will undo the progress Twitter has made in the past several years to reduce the prevalence of harassment, hate speech, and misinformation.

“The idea of allowing more speech sounds like a very positive thing,” said Renee DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “The question is, how is [Musk] going to balance that with the recognition that content moderation has always existed in the interest of community creation online?”

Musk has talked a lot about the virtues of free speech, but he has no experience managing that on a social media platform where hundreds of millions of tweets are posted a day. The billionaire has offered a few clues, however, about what his overall approach to content moderation on Twitter might look like. In an interview at the TED conference earlier this month, Musk said he plans to “err on the side” of leaving content up — no matter how controversial — and only taking down content that clearly violates the law, such as an incitement to violence. This would be a stark departure from Twitter’s current content moderation policies, which, in recent years, have been aimed at limiting hate speech, harassment, and other types of content on the platform it deems harmful.

In the press release this week about his acquisition of Twitter, Musk also suggested less-controversial changes to Twitter, including “making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.” These are all areas that critics have called on Twitter to improve in the past, and in some cases, the company is already working on improvements. So we’ll have to see whether Musk can execute and how long it will take. Many of those eager for him to take the helm want him to turbocharge feature improvements like authenticating all users, and to dial back what they view as Twitter’s heavy-handedness in moderating people’s speech online.

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

“If in doubt, let the speech … let it exist. If it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist,” said Musk at the conference. “I do think that we want to be just 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 anyone say what they want online. But in practice, nearly every major platform — and even more recent free speech absolutist ones like Parler, Gettr, and Trump’s own Truth Social — have put into place some rules against things like hate speech, harassment, or inappropriate content. That’s because if they don’t, these platforms tend to devolve into cesspools of hateful, negative, or spammy content that isn’t good for users or advertisers. For example, when trolls flood someone with targeted harassment, they can be exercising their free speech, but their intimidation tactics are also potentially discouraging that user from sharing their own viewpoints.

“One of the things that we’ve seen on every single social platform since the invention of the internet is that some people’s free speech is deployed to try to prevent other people’s participation and assembly,” said DiResta.

In his TED interview, Musk did acknowledge some limitations to the idea of letting free speech remain up all the time. He said that, in some cases, Twitter could potentially deprioritize content to make it less prominent in people’s feeds.

“In a case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, then you would not want to necessarily promote that tweet,” said Musk. “I’m not saying that I have all the answers here.”

Twitter does have people in place to figure out the answers to these hard questions. Currently, Twitter’s moderation and safety teams, which reportedly include hundreds of employees, help make decisions about when to downrank, label, or delete tweets that violate its policies. It’s unclear what Musk plans to do with these teams, and some at the company are worried he’ll cut back.

There’s also a fear that Musk’s plan to “open up” Twitter’s algorithm could prove difficult. The idea is that in cases where the company down-ranks certain tweets, Twitter should make it clear to users what’s going on. As Musk put it in his TED interview, this would show users that “there’s no behind-the-scenes manipulation, either algorithmically or manually.”

It’s an idea that, in theory, even some of Musk’s critics on content moderation agree with, but in practice, it needs a lot more fleshing out. For starters, Twitter has many algorithms, so which one is Musk referring to? Also, how would Twitter share its proprietary technology without giving out its secret sauce, thereby allowing its competitors to copy its business?

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how Musk would run Twitter. But what we do know is that his views on how much Twitter should be moderating content are drastically different from his predecessors’ in running the company. If handled well, that could result in a more open, robust realm of conversation on one of the world’s most influential social networks. But if handled poorly, that could mean that problems like harassment, hate speech, and misinformation will only get worse.




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