Admittedly, it’s much, much too early to say with any certainty what sort of effect Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter will have on the social media platform, but news of Monday’s $44 billion deal certainly has plenty of people concerned.
While the takeover won’t close for three to six months, some users are already abandoning Twitter, and others are testing boundaries of what might be allowed on the site.
Most of the ideas Musk has proposed aren’t inherently bad ones—and in some cases, they are things users have long asked for. But some of Musk’s language, along with his ambiguity when asked for details, and his history of reversing his thinking with little to no apparent reason, has raised some alarms.
Musk, in many ways, is like a child with a new toy now that he owns Twitter. He’s ecstatically happy. He’s showing it off to everyone he can. And he can’t wait to play with it. But toys can be broken. Here are a few ways Musk might do that, whether accidentally or on purpose, with Twitter.
Verifying everyone could punish whistleblowers
Musk’s vow to “[authenticate] all humans” was a vague one, and privacy experts quickly raised a red flag, asking if the company plans to roll out a real-name policy, which would require users to provide documented evidence of their legal name. And while most everyone (except for the spammers) wants to get rid of the spam bots, the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out that there are legitimate reasons some people wish to remain anonymous, saying “pseudonymity and anonymity are essential to protecting users who may have opinions, identities, or interests that do not align with those in power.” Besides, the group noted, there’s little evidence that using real names creates a more civil environment.
A possible Trump return could further polarize the U.S.—or the world
While the former president has said he won’t return to Twitter even if he’s reinstated, he (like Musk) has been known to change his mind with no warning. Trump, of course, received a lifetime ban from the platform on January 8, 2021, following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, with Twitter citing “the risk of further incitement of violence” as the reason. Trump is still loudly furthering the (false) narrative that he won the 2020 election, which could cause more unrest.
Allowing all speech could enable extremists
Musk’s declaration that he’s a “free speech absolutist” is a worrying point, as extremists could feel emboldened to drown out other viewpoints. That sort of a situation, where one party’s speech is suppressed because of a cacophonous and unyielding reaction by detractors, is called the “heckler’s veto.”
Chris Bail, a professor at Duke and author of Breaking the Social Media Prism, notes that we’re already seeing that to some extent, saying, “6% of Twitter users currently generate about 76% of all political content on the platform, and those 6% people are overwhelmingly from the extremes.”
We could see an increase in disinformation and misinformation
People are already testing the definition of what a “free speech absolutist” will allow. Tuesday morning, for example, Ivermectin was trending with over 40K tweets.
Testing… Testing… Testing…
Ivermectin cured my COVID.
— Keith Malinak (@KeithMalinak) April 25, 2022
Let’s try free speech on here for a change… I like Ivermectin.
— JP Sears (@AwakenWithJP) April 26, 2022
Even Jeff Bezos appeared to be testing the waters, perhaps trolling Musk with questions about China’s influence on the platform.
Interesting question. Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square? https://t.co/jTiEnabP6T
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) April 25, 2022
Company culture issues could tear the company apart
Whereas Twitter has a reputation for putting value on a work-life balance, the businesses Musk currently owns are rarely accused of that. Twitter currently offers a “focus week,” excusing employees from nonessential meetings and giving them time off. In comparison, Tesla workers who stayed at home during the early days of the pandemic say they were laid off. (That came after Musk reopened the company’s plant against county orders.)
The new owner could promote more rampant misogyny
Women, especially those in high profile positions, already find themselves the subject of demeaning and sexist comments on a frequent basis on Twitter. Musk didn’t signal any desire to correct this—and, in fact, might have encouraged more, with his (now-deleted) poll earlier this month asking whether Twitter should drop the “w” from its name.
Subscription fees could give more weight to certain voices
While free Twitter doesn’t look to be going away, Musk has expressed interest in boosting Twitter Blue subscriptions, by offering an authentication check mark and no ads for a floated fee of $3 per month. That’s betting a lot on people paying for the service, which hasn’t been a huge success so far. And even if subscribers do come, will they be weighted to one political or social agenda and have a louder voice in the discussion?
The much-touted edit button could backfire
Sure, an edit button on Twitter sounds great—and maybe it will be. But Musk doesn’t seem to have a clear plan about what he wants. At a TED event after making the takeover offer, he suggested using the button might erase all previous retweets, but admitted he was spitballing, saying, “I don’t know, I’m open to ideas.” The wrong implementation could make things a lot worse than the typo-ridden landscape we deal with today, with the risk of being abused by trolls.
How so? If there’s no “wipe clean” option (something many tech experts say is a bad idea), it would be easy for a troll, foreign agent, or countless other ne’er-do-wells to have a notable number of people comment or retweet something, only to change its context afterward.
We could see an even less filtered Musk (if that’s possible)
Musk has gotten into trouble for his Tweets many times in the past. But as the owner of a private company, there are questions about whether the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) would still have approval authority over what he says—and that’s not even factoring in other incidents, like when he called someone who disagreed with him “pedo guy,” has made sexist “jokes,” and anti-union comments.
Musk, in the TED presentation, overshared with the world about his Tweet protocols.
“I’m tweeting more or less stream of consciousness,” he said. “I’m literally on the toilet or something, like, ‘Oh this is funny’ and then tweet that out.'”
Let’s hope that’s not the same approach he takes as he works on solving Twitter’s not-inconsiderable problems.