Tesla CEO Elon Musk stands to be the next owner of Twitter, having pledged roughly $44 billion to buy the social platform and take it private. Assuming that happens, next up on his agenda will be planning how to fulfill his promises to develop new Twitter features, open its algorithm to public inspection and defeat “spambots” on the service that mimic real users.
He'll also need to have the company start “authenticating all humans,” as he described it in a statement quoted in the Monday press release announcing the acquisition. What exactly Musk meant by the phrase remains unclear.
So does the question of whether his ideas are technologically possible and how we'll know if these changes would benefit users or serve some other purpose.
Experts who have studied content moderation and researched Twitter for years have expressed doubt that Musk knows exactly what he is getting into. After all, there are plenty of fledgling examples of “free speech”-focused platforms launched in the past few years as Twitter antidotes, largely by conservatives unhappy with the company’s crackdowns on hate, harassment and misinformation. Many have struggled to deal with toxic content, and at least one has been cut off by its own technology providers in protest.
Musk received some effusive, if highly abstract, praise from an unexpected quarter — Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, who praised Musk's decision to take Twitter “back from Wall Street” and tweeted that he trusts Musk's mission to “extend the light of consciousness” — a reference to Dorsey's notion that “Twitter is the closest thing we have to a global consciousness.”
The more hands-off approach to content moderation that Musk envisions has many users concerned that the platform will become more of a haven for disinformation, hate speech and bullying, something it has worked hard in recent years to mitigate. Wall Street analysts said if he goes too far, it could also alienate advertisers.
Musk has described himself as a “free-speech absolutist” and In recent weeks, he has proposed relaxing Twitter content restrictions — such as the rules that suspended former President Donald Trump’s account — while ridding the platform of fake “spambot” accounts and shifting away from advertising as its primary revenue model. Musk believes he can increase revenue through subscriptions that give paying customers a better experience — possibly even an ad-free version of Twitter.
Asked during a recent TED interview if there are any limits to his notion of “free speech,” Musk said Twitter would abide by national laws that restrict speech around the world. Beyond that, he said, he’d be “very reluctant” to delete posts or permanently ban users who violate the company's rules.
It won’t be perfect, Musk added, “but I think we want it to really have the perception and reality that speech is as free as reasonably possible."
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.