Elon Musk is purchasing Twitter. After months of publicly toying with the idea, the world’s richest man successfully negotiated a deal to buy the social media platform for $44 billion.
On Monday, Musk gave a statement with a short list of goals for the platform, many of which he has recently floated to his 83 million followers on Twitter. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he tweeted. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”
But are Musk’s goals actually feasible? Can he really transform Twitter into a less-moderated forum where free speech flourishes—and at the same time make it a service that generates more revenue from subscribers than advertisers? Sure, he’s the world’s wealthiest private citizen, but he’ll need Twitter to churn out income, if only to pay back the banks that loaned him $25 billion for the purchase. Here’s a look at Musk’s proposed changes, where Twitter stands on them currently, and what history–and experts–tell us about whether they might be successfully implemented.
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‘Free speech absolutist’
Musk called himself a “free speech absolutist” in a March tweet. Last January, three days after President Trump received a permanent Twitter suspension for his “risk of further incitement of violence” following the Jan. 6 insurrection, Musk tweeted: “A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”
Musk’s hardline rhetoric about free speech flies in the face of Twitter’s recent evolution in this area. In 2018, the site came under fire after an MIT study showed that misinformation spread faster on Twitter than real news. Since then, the company has stepped up its efforts to combat hate speech and increase user safety, including the ability for its users to flag false information. The controversial Twitter account Libs of Tik Tok was twice suspended for “hateful conduct”—and last week, the company announced it would ban advertisements that challenge widely-accepted research on climate change.
But misinformation, propaganda and extremist views are still omnipresent on the site, especially surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Musk has said that hate speech would be banned, he has yet to parse out the gray areas, and it seems possible that more lenient policies for content moderation could lead to more of the toxic behavior that Twitter has been trying to stamp out for years.
And fewer guardrails around speech could be bad for Twitter’s bottom line: advertisers might be less likely to pay money for posts that might sit next to racism, bigotry or sexism.
Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Calif. on April 21, 2022.
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images
In a now-deleted Tweet, Musk argued for the removal of all ads from Twitter, writing, “The power of corporations to dictate policy is greatly enhanced if Twitter depends on advertising money to survive.”
Twitter is almost wholly reliant on ads to stay afloat financially. In Q4 2021, the company reported advertising revenue of $1.41 billion out of $1.57 billion in total revenue during that quarter. In November, the company rolled out its first consumer subscription package, Twitter Blue, which costs $3 a month for access to “premium features.” But Chief Executive Parag Agrawal said in February that Blue is “not critical” to meeting its revenue projections, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Musk has expressed support for a subscription model, but wants it to be cheaper than it currently is now. At a TED conference this month, he said that his interest in Twitter “is not a way to make money.” But he will need for the platform to continue to earn revenue, because he paid for more than half of it in financing from Morgan Stanley and other institutions. In order to service his debt, he will likely need to not just preserve Twitter’s ad revenue, but grow it.
Spam bots and human authentication
Musk called spam bots the “single most annoying problem” on Twitter. Bots, which often promote crypto-based scams these days, flood users’ feeds in an attempt to lure unsuspecting victims.
Twitter already has a rigorous process for weeding out fake accounts: the company uses software during the registration process to detect patterns of automation. But botmakers are getting more slippery and sophisticated, allowing many to pass through Twitter’s censors undetected. Meanwhile, it’s much harder to sniff out manual fakes, in which real people create fake accounts to spread disinformation or defraud people. One 21-year-old, for instance, repeatedly impersonated Trump family members on Twitter for a year, even tricking the President.
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At the moment, Musk seems to believe that the best solution to the bots problem is to authenticate “all real humans,” or to have accounts overtly linked to other personal identifiers, whether it be a phone number, an email address or a photo. But this idea has raised the ire of many Twitter users who like the app precisely for its pseudonymity. “I would rather have spam bots than have to “authenticate” my human identity. I’ve made it this far without ever associating my government name with my extracurricular activities,” wrote one user in response to Musk.
“How can we ensure the people from at-risk regions who have to be under pseudonyms to enjoy the freedom to express the truth while authenticating they’re real humans without blowing their cover?,” the engineer Jane Manchun Wong wrote. Others worried that a detailed list of users, even if kept internally by Twitter, would be vulnerable to seizure or hacks from governments or malicious actors.
Michael Saylor, CEO of the business intelligence firm MicroStrategy, responded to Musk with his own suggestion last week: that users should be required to post “a one-time security deposit” that they forfeit if they are reported and found to be acting in malice. This solution, however, could lead to collective bullying, in which a group with a vendetta could mass-report a real individual to get them de-verified and stripped of their deposit.
What people see on social media is usually the work of complicated algorithms, whose components are often closely guarded secrets of Big Tech. Musk wants Twitter to open-source its algorithms—i.e., to publicly share the decision-making behind what tweets get shown to users. If someone’s tweets are “emphasized or de-emphasized, that action should remain apparent,” he argued at the TED conference. Many agree with him generally, especially in the wake of the 2021 Facebook papers, which showed how skewed algorithms can have disastrous consequences.
But several experts have argued that the process of making such information public is far more complicated than Musk is asserting. “The algorithm is just the tip of the iceberg.…The rest of the iceberg is all of this data that Twitter has,” Robin Burke, a professor of information science at University of Colorado at Boulder, told the Washington Post this month. Even if the sprawling computer code was released to the public, Burke argues, much of it would be completely illegible to most viewers—and would be especially useless without the inserted data, which contains plenty of private and personal information.
An edit button
When Musk polled his followers on April 4 as to whether they wanted Twitter to implement an Edit button, they responded resoundingly: 73% of 4.4 million votes were “yes.” Calls for an Edit button have long been omnipresent on Twitter, while Reddit and Facebook have Edit features that work fairly well for their users.
But while an edit button would allow users to fix typos, it would also open the door for bad actors to alter the record of public conversation. Trolls could publish a widely agreed-upon statement in order to rack up likes and retweets, only to change it to something heinous after the fact. Hackers could break into the accounts of governments or corporations and alter information. Ben Sangster, a former Twitter software engineer, wrote that while he was part of an internal effort to create an Edit button in 2015, his team “concluded that the potential for abuse was too high to move forward.”
There’s also a smaller technical issue: Twitter allows third-party apps and developers, including widely-used ones like TweetDeck, to download tweets in real time. Once a tweet is downloaded by a platform like TweetDeck, there’s no way for Twitter to recall or edit it, Lewis Mitchell, a data science professor at the University of Adelaide, wrote in a recent article.
Twitter itself has announced it is working on an Edit button, but has remained fairly tight-lipped on any details. One user who responded to Musk’s poll suggested that the Edit button should only be available for a few minutes after someone publishes, and that the original Tweet remain available to the public. Musk called the proposal “reasonable.”
While Musk faces plenty of challenges, he’s overcome daunting obstacles before, whether at SpaceX or Tesla. And he acknowledged on Twitter that he is ready to hear from his critics, no matter how loud they might be: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”