What you need to know about Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and what it means for misinformation
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What happened:

“The bird is freed”.

A tweet from Tesla owner and billionaire Elon Musk as he finally completed the long-awaited takeover of Twitter last week.

What you need to know:

  • The South African businessman has long critised Twitter’s content moderation policies, calling Twitter’s decision to remove a New York Post article about President Biden’s son Hunter Biden earlier this year as “incredibly inappropriate”
  • Activists, politicians and users have all voiced concerns that Musk’s ownership of Twitter will result in rampant misinformation and identity-based hate on the platform, but it’s worth noting the platform was already struggling to grips with this challenge before Musk’s purchase.
  • Musk has tried to ease the anxiety of advertisers by reassuring them that Twitter won’t become a ‘free-for-all hellscape’, although initial signs show the follower count of far-right users already beginning to surge
  • Musk has already fired top-executives at the social media giant, whom he had previously called out for what he considered to be misleading information about the prevalence of bots on the platform
  • Brands are already showing signs of nervousness about Musk’s ownership of the platform, with General Motors the first to pause advertising

 

What people are saying:

  • Elon Musk: “The reason I acquired Twitter is because it’s important to the future of civilization to have a common town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence. There is currently a great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society”
  • Thierry Breton, EU industry chief: “In Europe, the bird will fly by our rules”

 

Why it matters:

There are a number of tensions at the heart of Musk’s vision, and the coming weeks and months will give us more information on how the chips will fall.

First, Musk, in his statement to advertisers, claimed his main goal was to address rising polarisation – but one of the main drivers of this polarisation is widely-considered to be precisely the thing that makes platforms money from advertisement: their content recommendation algorithms. These are the pieces of code which decide what content we see at the top of our news feed, and are responsible for keeping us hooked to the platform.

Much of the debate has been around who Musk lets on the platform, but if Musk wanted to depolarise Twitter one of the best things he could do is alter the content recommendation system of the platform to stop promoting outrageous content. This would also blow a hole right through his own pocket.

Second, the challenge of prioritising free speech vs safety of users doesn’t have a solution – it’s a balance. Musk’s vision for a platform that isn’t a “hellscape” but also welcomes a “wide range of beliefs” is already hitting reality, as radical users begin to test the waters of how far the platform is willing to let them go. 

General Motors’ suspension of advertising is that this is another area where Musk’s vision is potentially in tension with what’s profitable.

 

What to watch

  • How will the advertising industry react to unfolding events at Twitter – will more brands join General Motors?
  • Who will return to the platform – the U.S far-right in particular is itching to get back onto the platform, with big names like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene still banned for spreading misinformation
  • Who will be on the ‘content moderation council’, Musk’s proposed solution to tough content moderation decisions – which isn’t particularly new (Facebook has its own Oversight Board)?
  • How will Musk manage ‘diplomacy’ with authoritarian states like Russia and China where he might have business interests that conflict with content moderation decisions?
  • Is talk of a purge of staff genuine and if so what impact will gutting the platform’s safety teams have on the spread of damaging and dangerous content from misinformation to child pornography?
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