What Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter says about social media’s political tightrope
When the idea behind Twitter was first hatched in a meeting in 2006, the service was envisioned as a way for people to message their friends.
Since then, the San Francisco company has grown to encompass 217 million daily active users and morphed into a town square where prominent global leaders communicate.
But like other social media platforms, Twitter has also become a tool for politicization and has struggled to strike a balance between fostering free speech and combating misinformation.
Those tensions surfaced Thursday, when Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter for $43 billion became public, raising concerns from industry observers over how he would handle content on one of the world’s most popular social media sites.
Musk, an avid Twitter user with 81.8 million followers, expressed his intention to take the company private and Twitter’s “potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe.”
“Twitter has extraordinary potential,” Musk said in a letter to Twitter’s board chairman. “I will unlock it.”
But Musk’s own track record on Twitter has raised concerns over what type of content he would allow on the site. He once called a British cave rescue diver a “pedo guy” on Twitter. In 2019, Musk came under fire from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for tweeting that he had secured funding to take Tesla private, which boosted Tesla stock. The two ended up settling, with Musk leaving his role as Tesla chairman and Musk and Tesla each paying the SEC $20 million.
Musk has called himself a “free speech absolutist,” and many people believe that if he owned Twitter, he would probably give people banned from the platform, including former President Trump, a second chance and be more lax on what types of content are allowed.
Twitter banned Trump last year for tweets related to the election, which Twitter believed could inspire other people to replicate the violent insurrection that occurred Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of people stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest the election results.
“I am concerned that if Twitter became less active in moderating misinformation on the platform, that would lead to additional violence like we saw on Jan. 6, and it would further undermine our democracy that depends on having and believing shared facts,” Kevin Esterling, a professor of public policy and political science at UC Riverside, wrote in an email.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, social media platforms have faced growing pressure to moderate content, but that has proved difficult.
Companies including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have hired moderators to flag any content that might violate the companies’ guidelines or rules. But each day, large volumes of information are uploaded to these platforms, making it challenging to monitor. On YouTube alone, the company says, more than 500 hours of content are uploaded every minute.
Recently, social media sites have come under fire for the role that they may have played in spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and false claims that Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Political leaders have also discussed changes to the law to hold technology companies more accountable for what content they promote.
“There is definitely increased pressure for social media sites and for other public information sites to take responsibility for making decisions about what is on their platform,” said Karen North, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Although some users complain about material they think is offensive or violates content rules, social media companies often decide whether to take down material. These tech companies have broad legal protections because they are seen not as publishers but as conduits that distribute information.
“Social media companies are private entities and have no obligation whatsoever to preserve free speech,” Esterling said. “Instead, social media companies balance suppressing harmful information against their profit-making interest to promote content that users find attractive.”
Some analysts, however, think Musk could be good for Twitter.
Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research, believes that Musk would improve Twitter as a platform and that Musk’s experience with artificial intelligence and automation could help with some of the content moderation issues that Twitter is dealing with.
“Why can you have really weird adult pornography sites on Twitter and sitting members of government are censored?” Wang said. “Those are the kinds of questions that get asked but that can be solved.”
Twitter, while popular among newsmakers and journalists, is still smaller than its rivals. For example, Facebook had 1.93 billion daily active users on average in December and Snapchat had 319 million daily active users.
“The product has pretty much been stagnant for quite some time, and [Musk is] gonna put some life into the product, and I think that makes it exciting,” Wang said.
Musk on Thursday gave a window into the changes he would like to see at Twitter, including open-sourcing its algorithm so that there is more transparency about how tweets are promoted or de-emphasized. He said that Twitter should abide by the laws in the countries where it operates.
“If it’s a gray area, let the tweet exist, but obviously in a case where there’s a lot of controversy, you would not necessarily want to promote that tweet,” Musk said during a discussion at a TED 2022 event. “I’m not saying I have all the answers here, but I do think we want to be very reluctant to delete things or just be very cautious with permanent bans.”
Although Musk said he does not care about the economics behind his bid, owning Twitter could give him access to valuable data — such as how people interact with information that’s trending — that could benefit his other businesses.
“Twitter is built in a way that is very efficient and very strong in collecting and using data,” North said. “Elon Musk is no stranger to the power of data, and so he would be buying a platform that collects really valuable data for anybody running any business.”
He would also be in control of a very powerful information channel, North said.
“When I look at Twitter, I don’t see a social network, I see an information network,” North said. “It’s a network of people who are communicators, either journalists or people who act like journalists conveying information to their audiences.”
Some expressed doubt over whether Musk would go through with his offer, and investor reaction was mixed on the news. Twitter stock closed down 1.7% at $45.08 on Thursday. The company said in a statement that its board would review Musk’s proposal.
“It is possible that Musk is not serious about taking over Twitter and he might be trolling the platform as a way to grab attention,” Esterling said. “However, he has very strong views about unfettered speech, and it is also possible that he is interested in making the platform more of a wild west of unrestricted speech.”
Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.