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After weeks of speculation, Twitter and Elon Musk announced Monday that the billionaire would commit $44 billion to purchase the social media platform.
Musk’s purchase of Twitter comes as the company finds itself treading a narrow path between enabling speech and policing dangerous content ranging from COVID-19 misinformation to harassment to posts inciting political violence. Musk is a self-described “free-speech absolutist,” leading to speculation about what changes he would bring as the now private owner of the company, which had previously been a public company held by shareholders.
READ MORE: Twitter has a misinformation problem. Here’s how Elon Musk’s plans for the platform could make it worse
While Twitter’s active user base of 330 million, falls far short of rivals Facebook and TikTok, it does have influence that goes beyond its numbers. Politicians, journalists, activists and intellectuals are particularly active on the site, which means it has an outsized influence on public debate and the media.
The PBS NewsHour spoke to three experts in the fields of social media, communications and democracy about Musk’s purchase of Twitter. The conversations have been lightly edited for clarity.
Evan Greer, Director, Fight for the Future:
“I think no one really knows the answer to that question, including Musk himself. Yeah, he’s not an expert in content moderation, and I think he will very quickly learn that it is significantly more complicated than he hopes it is, or wants it to be, which is true for many others as well. I think for me, all of this sort of exposes the underlying problem here, which is that just too few companies that have too much power over what can be seen and heard and done online. And because of that, we’re in this situation where one of the richest people on Earth is proposing to simply purchase a platform that millions of people depend on– with the idea that he wants to change the rules to be more to his liking. To me, we are wasting too much time arguing about what the rules are on the tiny handful of platforms that we have, rather than asking ourselves what policies are needed to lead to a world where we have more choices. Where Elon Musk can buy Twitter and change the rules and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have implications for our democracy, our society, because people can actually leave and go somewhere else. Right now there are about five companies that essentially have a monopoly on human attention. Until we change that, I think we’re going to be going around in circles and, you know, anyone who claims they can predict what Elon Musk will do if and when he buys Twitter –no one really knows [because] he’s totally erratic and hasn’t articulated anything specific yet beyond kind of these allusions to free speech. I would say if he actually cared about free speech, I’ve got a laundry list of things that he could be working on.”
Roy Gutterman, Director, Tully Center for Free Speech, Syracuse University:
“That’s the multi-billion dollar question right now. And we really don’t know how this will change, if it will at all. But this much power concentrated in a single person is always something to be concerned about. But if we believe everything Elon Musk has said about his commitment to free speech, then you know, we should see wide open and robust debate and exchange of viewpoints on Twitter in the future.”
“There might also be things we’ll see change overnight as far as unblocking certain users, and we all know certain users are at the center of this discussion. So with the snap of a finger once he owns the sandbox, he can let anybody in or keep anybody out.”
David Kaye, Professor at UC Irvine School of Law and chair of the board of directors of the Global Network Initiative:
“I don’t think we know right now. I think that if we go with Elon’s sort of approach towards free speech, which is kind of a grade school version of free speech where the speaker is everything and the audience and other speakers don’t matter, I think that’s going to turn Twitter into a place that a lot of people find difficult to use. But I also think that he’ll figure out pretty quickly that Twitter has rules in order to expand freedom of expression and he’ll probably come to appreciate them the more he’s there and sort of working on making it a better platform.”
Evan Greer: “It’s not like Mark Zuckerberg is some paragon of moral leadership, right? Elon Musk himself is a very talented troll. But to me, this isn’t about Elon Musk. It’s about the fact that we just should not live in a world where one person making the decision to purchase one website or app can have such a profound impact on millions of people’s speech and safety. Yeah, that’s just not a good way to structure our communications infrastructures.”
Roy Gutterman: “There are plenty of other businesses and entities that have single owners or private owners or answer to shareholders. So for the average person, I’m not sure a single entity is going to be that much different than a publicly traded company. I don’t know how much influence shareholders have over individual policies or the internal mechanisms of a private company. So in some ways, I’m not sure much will really change to the general public other than, you know, Elon Musk now becomes the face of this behemoth. So, if he wants to unilaterally change policies, he will, as the owner.”
David Kaye: “People now use Twitter and value Twitter for its contribution to public knowledge and public debate. I mean, it also serves as a place for harassment and hate speech. And that’s what the company of the last five years has tried to tamp down. And so I think the risks are pretty significant. If Elon comes in and changes the way the rules are adopted and the way they’re enforced I think it can just undermine people’s interest in using the platform. And over time, it could just make the platform less popular than it is.”
“This isn’t only — or shouldn’t be only — about Elon Musk buying the platform. I think there’s a broader problem of having platforms designed to kind of enable one particular person, whether it’s Elon Musk or before him Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg or you name the person and the platform, to have that kind of control.”
Evan Greer: “I don’t see any benefit in one single person purchasing a platform and changing the rules to his liking. I think it also remains to be seen how much granular control a private owner would even have. I think Musk will very quickly run into the reality that content moderation is not just like a knob, that you can turn up and down and say we want more of it, we want less of it. It is actually significantly more complicated than that, and once he realized that, like, oh wow, there’s this whole trust and safety team, whose entire job is to try to figure out these incredibly complex problems – and maybe they haven’t been doing the most amazing job at it. I think in the long run, we’ll sort of end up seeing more of the same, which will be haphazard, arbitrary, not terribly transparent content moderation decisions which we see across all the major platforms.
Roy Gutterman: “We could have the concept of the benevolent overlord who just looks out for society’s right to express themselves on this giant platform. I mean, if we are to believe his commitment to free speech principles and the democratization of Twitter, then there will be plenty of opportunities for lots of different people that [have] lots of different viewpoints and have a platform.”
David Kaye: “One, is he has talked about transparency and I think there is a lot of value to opening up Twitter — and all of the platforms — to greater disclosure about how they make their rules and how they enforce them. I mean, despite the fact that the platforms are all better than they used to be in terms of what they share with the public, they’re still pretty opaque. And I think if he were to say, “That’s going to change with me, I’m going to create more disclosure and allow people to see how we actually make our decisions,” – that would be great. But I think another kind of possibility would be for him to essentially move in a direction of [understanding] that free speech is not just about the speaker, but it’s also about audiences. And he tweeted this morning that he loves humanity. So maybe this is related to it. But he should adopt essentially a human rights approach and say, “This platform is about expanding everybody’s access to information, everybody’s right to freedom of expression, and I want this platform to be the best that it can be in doing that.”
Evan Greer: “We don’t know yet, but what we do know is that it’s not going to magically solve the problems that users had. There are real issues where legitimate content is removed from platforms without due process and transparency about why those decisions were made. And that silences legitimate speech disproportionately according to actual evidence, counter to the typical narrative. That type of platform censorship tends to disproportionately impact marginalized communities, particularly Black and brown folks, and trans folks. Elon Musk buying Twitter is not going to fix any of those problems. And it may create some new problems, that remains to be seen, but I think again we are kind of just going around in circles where we’re tinkering at the edges instead of striking at the root of the issue, which is again from where I see it, monopoly power.”
READ MORE: Turning Twitter into a ‘free speech’ haven might not be as easy as Elon Musk thinks
Roy Gutterman: “I mean, that’s one of the big concerns that I’ve been following. That, if he does change certain policies regarding things like so-called hate speech or certain types of offensive speech, whether that could end up [resulting in] regulators in Europe to perhaps block the site or require other changes. I mean, we’ve seen other digital platforms run into global problems, especially in Europe with certain standards there, so that is an area of concern. And if he totally loosens things here as far as moderation goes, know that loosening could end up running afoul of certain European standards as well.”
David Kaye: “I imagine that certainly [for] domestic users, it won’t look very different. Maybe we’ll get an edit button or something like that, which is totally marginal. But if he thinks the rules are a problem, then I think over the near term we’ll see some big changes. It could involve Donald Trump coming back to the platform. It could involve those who are basically white supremacists, vaccine and COVID deniers, back onto the platform because, hey, they’re just speaking. And so I think people might start to see that more and more. And if they do, I think people will start to really kind of become frustrated with Twitter. They’ll see it as I think many people saw it five, six years ago, which was a place for Nazis and white supremacists, and others who really just want to use and weaponize the platform for propaganda.”
“At the global level, all of the platforms are weak in terms of dealing with other languages, other contexts, other situations. Particularly women journalists around the world face really serious harassment. This is the case, for example, in India, where Twitter is really quite influential and popular. And so I think that as he kind of relaxes the rules, let’s say, the kind of harm that people see here may be less evident than what people see in other countries where it’s already hard to get the platform to enforce its rules. So, that globally could be even worse, and just over time, I think people will just find it less and less valuable as a place to go if it doesn’t have those kinds of constraints set for it.”
Evan Greer: “We tend to have an extremely U.S.-centric way of thinking through these things here in the U.S., in tech policy conversations. Rarely do folks here think about how platform policies may play out elsewhere. We know that Facebook has dramatically under-invested in human moderation in languages other than English. So, if you live outside the U.S. and English is not your first language, your speech on the platform is much more likely to be moderated by robots essentially, than by humans, and robots are not very good at detecting things like satire or nuance or humor, which means that that leads to over-removal of legitimate content by people outside the U.S., and then under-removal of harmful content that does violate terms of service. But the robots are not catching it and they’re not hiring enough moderators to catch it.”
“There are places in the world where Twitter is an essential outlet for human rights documentation, for activists who are fighting back against repressive regimes. You worry about the potential harm to folks who are living in more dangerous or extreme situations when you have somebody at the helm who is just not thinking about people’s safety and not thinking about human rights as a core value.”
Evan Greer: “Twitter is a private company, it’s not in government, right? So you do hear people make these straw man arguments where they’ll say, ‘you know removing content from the platform doesn’t violate First Amendment, so therefore it must be fine.’ That’s 100 percent true from a legal perspective. That doesn’t mean that platforms’ content moderation decisions don’t have a profound impact on what speech gets seen and heard and by who. So these are very consequential decisions. And I think anyone who’s downplaying how consequential the platform moderation decisions for a platform as large and influential as Twitter is doing a disservice because it does have an enormous impact. And the folks that are most impacted are not billionaires, who don’t have easy access to the press.”
“It’s folks who don’t have that type of power privilege who are most harmed when their speech is illegitimately removed from a platform.”
Roy Gutterman: “It’s interesting that dissatisfaction with Twitter and social media in general kind of transcends party politics. People on the right have objections. People on the left have objections. They’re just slightly different objections. But I think part of his concern has been that some voices have been blocked, ostensibly because their speech offended people or their speech fell under the standards of perhaps inciting violence or falling into the national nebulous category of hate speech. And I think in some ways he might be responding to some of those concerns and some of those critics.”
David Kaye: “So Twitter used to be much more, and all the platforms started out much more along the lines of: We don’t need rules because this is a place for people just to express themselves. And they all learned fairly quickly that that wasn’t going to be tenable because you have other competing interests on the platform. So it’s easy to see how rules around terrorist contact, for example, had to be established so that the platform could take terrorists off Twitter, or off Facebook, or you name the platform. But other people use the platform also in ways that try to essentially kick people off or intimidate people off of the platform. And so those rules have developed in order not to crack down on free speech, but to make the platform more usable for more users. And that itself is a free speech position. It’s just not this simplistic, solo speaker means everything kind of an approach. So the rules are developed really to deal with making the platforms available to more people, to marginalized speakers.”
“I mean, there’s one other issue also and that’s anonymity. Even though it might be said to have some harms, generally speaking, it’s allowed users who are particularly in difficult environments, where if their identity is known, they can be subjected to harassment or arrest. Anonymity has become really an important part of the platform’s usability for people around the world. And Elon Musk has kind of suggested that he doesn’t like the anonymity part of it and so that that could make it even less attractive globally as well. But these are all about rules that the platform adopts. And if Elon wants to change them, I think he’ll see that for each of these changes there are very significant implications.”
“But the world is not in a place right now where they’re happy with the companies just doing whatever they want to do. Just last week, the European Union provisionally adopted this massive new regulatory scheme for social media. And I think we’re going to see that more and more around the world and that’s going to create constraints on his ability to change the rules internationally, too. So this is all sort of happening in an interesting moment where on the one hand, you have this individual billionaire, the wealthiest person on Earth, taking control of this massively influential platform. At the same time, you have governments in the European Union saying, actually, the platforms can’t just have this sole discretion to decide what they’re doing. They have to play by our rules. And that’s going to be interesting to see how he deals with that.”
Justin Stabley is a digital editor at the PBS NewsHour.
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