“Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.” Since Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter was accepted on 25 April 2022, there have been enough twists and turns to make any attempt at predicting the final outcome of the saga, and the likelihood of Twitter’s “potential” being unlocked, unwise. Threats to walk away, accusations of broken NDAs, and targeted poop emojis have all featured since late April, but there is still little to definitively suggest which way the deal will go (although, as is often the way with Musk, the situation could change rapidly).
Even though the future ownership structure of Twitter is unclear, Musk’s intervention and commentary on the operating model of the social media giant will continue to create waves. Musk has a fascinating ability to shape the debate around Twitter, but perhaps the long-term changes he has proposed, which are most likely to have a big impact on its tone and content, are of the most interest from a user perspective.
Musk has an undeniable influence over Twitter, and while he has wielded this since well before he stated his intentions to purchase the company, his influence has become increasingly apparent in recent weeks. In response to a poll that Musk created for his followers on the topic of creating an edit button that would allow tweets to be changed retrospectively, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal warned, “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.” And in response to a Musk tweet suggesting that the Twitter algorithm should be open source, CEO and founder Jack Dorsey appeared to offer his endorsement: “The choice of which algorithm to use (or not) should be open to everyone.” When Musk makes comments about changes to the platform, however vague or precise, people take notice.
The thorny issue of content moderation and free speech
Content moderation is perhaps the most discussed – and the most contentious – issue when it comes to Musk and Twitter. Musk has made clear his own interpretation of free speech, defining it as “that which matches the law”. This would appear to indicate that he plans to reduce the existing thresholds for content moderation – something that Twitter, among other social media companies, has made efforts to tighten in recent years beyond the scope of government legislation. This has included policies that prohibit material including election misinformation, medical misinformation and deepfakes – all of which are not explicitly illegal to post online, but present a clear danger to the public.
The possibility of this type of harmful content being allowed to find a home on Twitter while it is within the law prompts questions about what legislation should be brought in to prevent it, without resembling censorship. Already, the EU has warned Musk that any changes must comply with the new Digital Services Act, while the UK Government has stated that companies must adhere to the forthcoming Online Safety Bill, which will require platforms to protect users from harmful content. Despite Musk initially signalling his disdain for these warnings, he has since shown more willingness to comply.
Better regulation of the online space has been a long time coming, and this seems a likely route for legislative bodies to follow. However, while Twitter’s potential shift towards becoming a less controlled online environment could be the catalyst for better-defined regulation and oversight in some countries, it is unlikely that it will be applied consistently across all nations. As noted by Karen Kornbluh, Director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund, “There’s a real danger that if Twitter changes its policy to only remove content that violates the law, we will see even more extremism at home and censorship abroad.” Twitter’s ability to be the arbiter of truth and self-regulate is an issue that often crosses political divides, but so does the underlying concept of what is acceptable to post on the internet, and what is not.
The quest to defeat Twitter’s spam/bot accounts
Musk has tweeted that, if he completes his takeover, he will “defeat spam bots or die trying”. The focus of his attention (and complaints) is frequently directed towards the issue of Twitter bots, and he has claimed that the lack of transparency regarding the number of bots on Twitter could torpedo any potential deal – although many have pondered whether this is simply a convenient excuse to pull out of the takeover in an economy that looks vastly different from that of a few months ago.
Simply put, bots are programmes that tweet automatically according to pre-programmed rules. While some bots such as news alerts can be helpful, others, such as spam bots that dominate human discussions with irrelevant responses, are not. It is perhaps this dual nature of bots that has prevented Twitter from inhibiting their existence more comprehensively: while some are irritating, harmful or sinister, others enrich the Twitter experience.
The reality is that bot technology is becoming ever more advanced, and the task of identifying and taking down bots is increasingly difficult. Many bot accounts are partly run by humans, while others have had techniques applied to avoid human and/or algorithmic detection. Twitter is aware of the issue: Agrawal posted a lengthy thread detailing how difficult it is to detect and remove spam accounts. Any conviction that this will become easier in the future, regardless of who owns the company, should be met with hesitation.
Making the Twitter algorithm open source
A third headline-grabbing commitment from Musk has been that of making the Twitter algorithm open source. In a recent TED talk, Musk spoke specifically about the algorithm that decides which tweets are promoted, and his desire to make it more transparent. This is a particular area of concern for Conservative users of the platform, who have long claimed that their presence is being unnaturally diminished, in what they believe is tantamount to political censorship. Musk stated his hope to upload the algorithm to GitHub, so that more people can see it and even suggest changes and improvements.
However, this is not quite as simple as Musk has suggested. Twitter is not run on a single algorithm: multiple algorithms work in tandem with each other, organising a huge amount of data. Layered on top of this is a significant amount of machine learning that is constantly evolving in response to user habits. The vast amount of data fed into Twitter by its users is what drives many of the decisions about what is seen or promoted.
There are also additional security risks to consider: revealing too much about how the system works could make it easier for the bad actors, or spam accounts, that Musk reviles so much, to game the system and become even more problematic. Social media companies have been built on their algorithms, and opening up this crucial intellectual property to competitors or bad actors has its risks.
Musk has announced a bold ambition to quintuple the revenue of Twitter by 2028, and has never been hesitant about suggesting changes to the platform. As well as the significant proposals outlined above, he has also mentioned edit buttons, paid-for premium accounts, longer-form tweets and ending permanent bans. While all ideas are worthy of discussion, the black and white solutions that Musk presents on Twitter (which is, of course, limited by character counts) need to be more fully understood. Musk is, however, undeniably shaping the discussion on the future of Twitter, and it’s likely that steps towards making his vision a reality will be taken, however his takeover transpires.