Elon Musk’s blockbuster Twitter acquisition has left the internet busy with speculations and expert opinions, but the reality is that it is hard to predict exactly which direction the social media platform is headed. Musk has made some bold promises to improve Twitter recently, but most of these come with certain caveats. At the top of the Tesla chief’s Twitter overhaul agenda is a push for free speech. Musk has made it clear that he doesn’t care about the economics of his nearly $44 billion purchase. During his TED interview in April, he boldly proclaimed that free speech is extremely important for the future of civilization and that he will do his best to turn Twitter into a town square where free speech is valued above all else.
However, free speech is a slippery slope that depends as much on balanced moderation policies as on complying with local laws in different parts of the globe. One of the key concerns that experts have voiced is that free speech absolutism means allowing content from all sides of an ideology to flourish on the platform. But balancing what can be termed as fair criticism in the U.S. and seditious for regimes with tight control over citizen discourse is going to be a nightmare. Arguments that sound self-defensive to one group might end up unleashing violence on another.
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That’s only half the problem. Adopting an uninhibited approach to free speech also means Twitter will either have to spend more resources on content moderation or risk undoing the work that it has done in the past few years. As per a report from Reuters, Musk told bankers that he will undertake some cost-cutting measures to steer Twitter on a path of fat revenues. And that definitely doesn’t sound like a bid to boost the moderation resources. Musk’s fans are known to take undue advantage of free speech. Twitter’s legal head Vijaya Gadde is just the latest example of ‘Musk Bros’ hounding a person who merely drew Musk’s criticism. Science reporter Erin Biba documented the harassment and online abuse faced by Musk fans all the way back in 2018.
There’s A Cost To Every Change
Another change that Musk has promised for his vision of Twitter is an open-source algorithm in an attempt to boost transparency. Informing users about how the content algorithm works and pushes content in their feed is a step in the right direction. However, simply open-sourcing the algorithm doesn’t explain how the algorithms really work, who developed them, why they prioritize certain content, and the AI biases that may have crept in during the training. Open-sourcing Twitter’s algorithms also means leaving the platform’s codebase exposed, which gives hackers an up-close look at vulnerabilities that can be exploited. More importantly, open-sourcing the algorithm will also allow bad actors to develop more sophisticated methods to game the whole system via bots. In a nutshell, an open-source Twitter will offer a double-dose of problems to millions of its users.
Musk has repeatedly claimed that removing the menace of spammy bots remains a key priority. But there’s not just one algorithm at play here. As per a WIRED report, Twitter relies on a web of numerous algorithms trained on a vast amount of data and user-specific behavioral patterns to populate content in the feed. The socio-technical system at the heart of Twitter takes into account the real-time behavior of its users in complex ways. Musk has also expressed interest in protecting Twitter DMs with end-to-end encryption. It’s a decisive gain for user privacy and security, but implementing it isn’t going to be a cakewalk. Twitter has increasingly been in the spotlight as a platform buzzing with action from law enforcement authorities over problematic conduct such as hate speech and violence.
Blocking the direct messages behind a layer of encryption is going to be a bittersweet upgrade, one that trades legal conduct in favor of privacy. Musk reportedly had plans for making money from Twitter, which includes pushing subscription services and charging for tweets, especially those that are embedded on a third party’s website. Twitter already has a subscription product in its kitty, but charging people to access exclusive features is not the same as asking them to pay for viewing a tweet. Clearly, Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter have the potential to drastically change the platform, but it won’t be a cakewalk.