It is unclear what Musk means when he advocates for ‘free speech.’ What does that entail? Everything is fair game?
That didn’t take long at all.
The world’s richest man acquired 9% of Twitter and became its largest shareholder just a few days ago, seemingly out of nowhere.
It was actually announced only a few weeks ago. Andrew J. Hawkins, writing at the time for The Verge, said, “So buckle up – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
And it has been!
The Tesla CEO transitioned from hinting he was interested in becoming a Twitter board member to wanting to buy the whole company in what seemed like the time it takes to type 140 characters. Social media observers rubbed their temples and raised their brows, dreading the idea of Musk taking over. In the meantime, far-right types cheered on Musk to buy the company, dismantle it, and rebuild it as a place where they could voice their opinions, including those laced with conspiracy theories and propaganda, under the banner of ‘free speech.’
There is no telling where this will go from here, but one thing is certain: Elon Musk has acquired Twitter for $44 billion in a flash.
How will this play out?
Well, for one thing, nothing is likely to happen right away. Despite the fact that an agreement has been reached, this is still a complicated deal that will cost $44 billion in total. An afternoon isn’t long enough for that kind of thing. The paperwork must be completed for weeks, maybe even months, before every ‘t’s has been crossed and every ‘i’s has been dotted.
There will certainly be speculation during that time. Also, concerns.
Many are wondering what Musk means when he advocates “free speech.” While it’s a noble goal, how does that manifest itself on social media? Can anything be said?
Will disinformation and misinformation spread? Is it possible to lie? Are threats possible?
Musk believes content moderators go too far in limiting what can be said. As he said, “Well, I think we would want to err on the, if in doubt, let the speech, let it exist. But if it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist. But obviously in a case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you’re not necessarily going to promote that tweet. I’m not saying I have all the answers here.”
That’s the scary part: He needs to know all the answers now that he is in charge of Twitter.
Musk tweeted on Monday, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
Again, sounds admirable on the surface, but we’ve seen what happens when Twitter users have unfettered access to say whatever they want!
How about Donald Trump? In response to his role and comments during the Jan. 6 insurrection, the former president was banned from Twitter. Musk hasn’t stated publicly whether he will allow Trump back on Twitter, but his “free speech” beliefs might lead him to do so.
Trump, however, is trying to launch his own social media platform, Truth Social. Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo asked Trump Media and Technology Group CEO Devin Nunes what would happen if Trump were allowed to rejoin Twitter on Monday.
Nunes stated, “Well, I can only report what he said and he said he really doesn’t have an interest in going on Twitter. And my guess is that it will continue to be the same.” Nunes continued, “Twitter right now is nothing but a PR wire. It’s got a global footprint, but there’s just nobody there. I mean, how do you explain how we have more engagement in Truth Social than they have on Twitter.”
The idea that Truth Social is more important than Twitter is simply absurd, and it’s hard to imagine that Trump will keep off Twitter if he’s allowed back on. In addition, Trump himself told Fox News on Monday, “I am not going on Twitter, I am going to stay on Truth. I hope Elon buys Twitter because he’ll make improvements to it and he is a good man, but I am going to be staying on Truth.”
Rachel Lerman of The Washington Post reported, “Musk has said he wants to make Twitter’s algorithm more transparent, including letting people see if their tweets were promoted or demoted. He said he wants to make the algorithm that recommends whether a tweet gets promoted or demoted ‘open source,’ or available for the public to view and improve upon. He said he believes that will help prevent ‘behind the scenes manipulation.’”
Musk also wants to purge Twitter of bots, tweeting in just the last few days, “If our Twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!”
Can Musk be good for Twitter?
One potential change that could be very popular with users is the addition of an edit button. Using this feature, users could go back into tweets and fix typos and grammatical errors – something you cannot do now and something that most people would appreciate. Nevertheless, that could present a whole new set of problems, such as changing the message of tweets after they’ve already been posted.
Let’s see what happens!
Musk wrote on Monday, “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
However, Dan Primack of Axios wrote, “This is an earthquake in global media and politics, where Twitter hosts the discourse.” Primack added, “It’s sure to be criticized by those who disagree with Musk’s laissez-faire views on content moderation and cheered by those who believe Twitter has been too heavy-handed with its block button.”
There’s a good chance that the ride will only get bumpier.