Questions Abound as Musk Poised to Take Twitter
WASHINGTON — Skepticism is in the air the day after Twitter announced Elon Musk would purchase the company and turn it private.
“The scariest thing is we have an ultra-wealthy individual taking control of this without regulations in place,” said Darrell West, senior fellow of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institute.
West and others are questioning Musk’s intentions as much remains unknown about his deal to take the company private.
“It’s a very big deal; Twitter is an influential platform,” West said.
Musk is leveraging his personal wealth to purchase Twitter at a time when social media platforms are being scrutinized for the content that freely flows between users.
In recent years, Twitter and other large platforms have stepped up moderation to combat harassment, misinformation, and to crackdown on the potential incitement of violence of the kind that got former President Donald Trump banned from the website. Smaller platforms like Trump’s own Truth Social have since cropped up, offering users an option for less moderation.
As Musk takes the Twitter reins, he has called for less moderation — removing fewer tweets and people — on the social media site, which has about 217 million daily users.
“I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said earlier this month during a TED interview. “Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have … both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
And it’s totally within Musk’s right to buy the company and change it how he sees fit, said Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment specialist for the nonprofit Freedom Forum.
“All of these sites — regardless of who owns them and what medium they are — are private companies not subject to the First Amendment,” Goldberg said. “In fact, they have their own First Amendment rights and the government can’t tell them what to say.”
However, Goldberg would not go so far as to say Twitter itself is the “public square,” as Musk put it.
“To me, the internet is the public square and Twitter is one business in that square,” Goldberg said.
And Musk’s Twitter will provide another consumer choice, Goldberg said. Despite not being a physical product someone holds directly in their hand, it is a choice of what people want to spend their time on, he said.
‘Misinformation and Conspiracy Theorizing Has Taken Up More Oxygen’
There’s the possibility for “unintended consequences,” said Jared Holt, a fellow at the Atlantic Council researching the internet and domestic extremism.
Misinformation and extremism have existed on the internet for years but were typically on subreddits and message boards like 4chan, Holt explained. It wasn’t until about 2013 that blatant conspiracy theories and misinformation became more mainstream on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, he added.
“Throughout time this misinformation and conspiracy theorizing has taken up more oxygen in the room,” Holt said, adding it has real-world consequences, including Pizzagate and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
In 2016, a man shot up Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C., because he believed an internet conspiracy theory that the pizza place was running a child sex trafficking ring. The shooting has since been called “Pizzagate.”
In late 2020 and early 2021, conspiracy theories challenged the election results and 40% of Trump voters said he “definitely” won, according to the Pew Research Center. That same month thousands stormed the Capitol intent on interrupting the certification of the election results.
Also in 2020, social media sites began moderating information about preventing COVID-19. Sites also took a more proactive approach to disinformation in politics, including Facebook not allowing political ads immediately before the 2020 election.
In the interim, sites like Parler, Gab and Truth Social have cropped up, appealing to people looking to skirt moderation from the larger sites, Holt said.
“As a result, the base of users they are able to attract is the small number of users who want that, or at least think they want that,” he continued.
Holt has dabbled on these new social media sites and noted the abundance of “link spam,” people linking to articles or even their own Twitter posts instead of creating new content specific for these sites. There’s also more harassment, he said.
“If people using this site are getting a whole lot more harassment or spam, they might not stay on,” Holt said.
Despite few regulations in the United States, Twitter is a global company, which means other countries might scrutinize the sale more, West said. The European Union seems most likely to put up some guardrails, he added.
Thierry Breton of the European Commission tweeted a warning to Musk that he will have to follow the new Digital Services Act. The new legislation creates an “unprecedented new standard for the accountability of online platforms regarding illegal and harmful content” in the European Union, according to a statement from the commission.
“Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules — regardless of their shareholding. Mr. Musk knows this well. He is familiar with European rules on automotive, and will quickly adapt to the Digital Services Act,” Breton tweeted Tuesday.
West added there should be more oversight in these “big acquisitions” in the United States as well. The Twitter sale is still pending regulatory approval, but West would like to see more scrutiny in the process.
There are also other questions at play, West added: Will Donald Trump be allowed back on the platform? Will China influence his decisions?
Tesla, one of Musk’s companies that contributes to the majority of his wealth through shares, is opening a plant in China, where Twitter is currently banned. The social media site has also taken to labeling state-affiliated accounts in the country.
West questions “the impact of that effect on the algorithms.”
“He will be in a position to influence geopolitics,” West said. “The question for the world is: What’s he going to do?”
Madeline can be reached at [email protected]