Future Tense

Oh Crap, What Does Elon Musk Want to Do to Twitter?

How the new board member might shape the platform, for worse—and for better.

Elon Musk gestures as he speaks during a press conference.
Elon Musk is making moves at Twitter. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a series of audacious moves this week apparently to exert his influence over Twitter. On Monday, a 13G regulatory filing went public revealing that Musk had purchased a 9.2 percent stake—worth about $2.89 billion—in Twitter, making him the company’s largest shareholder.

Then, on Tuesday, Twitter announced that Musk would be joining its board. Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal tweeted of Musk, “He’s both a passionate believer and intense critic of the service which is exactly what we need on @Twitter, and in the boardroom, to make us stronger in the long-term.” Later that day, Bloomberg reported that Musk had refiled his disclosure forms to switch his investor status from passive to active, which gives him more ability to have input into the company’s operations.

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It’s unclear how exactly Musk wants to change Twitter, but his past behavior and comments can allow us to make some educated guesses—namely, that he might want more leeway in what users are able to say on the platform. Musk has one of the biggest accounts on Twitter with more than 80 million followers. He’s also one of the most active prominent figures on the site, posting news about his companies along with jokes and memes, which has previously gotten him into trouble. Musk’s tweet about taking Tesla private at $420 per share resulted in a securities fraud charge from the SEC, and his tweet calling a U.K. diver a “pedo guy” resulted in a defamation lawsuit.

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While Musk tweets prolifically, he’s faulted the platform for being too restrictive with content moderation. “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy,” he tweeted in March. If he really believes that Twitter has issues with moderation and free speech, now is his chance to mold the platform in his vision. “[Musk] has taken this pretty unequivocal position that Twitter’s recent practices—being a lot stronger on misinformation and hate speech—don’t align with his values of ‘free speech,’ ” said Zeve Sanderson, the executive director of New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics. Though Sanderson noted it would be tough to spot Musk’s influence in the moderation of “billions and billions of tweets,” “I think that he does sort of want something that is more akin to 2015 Twitter.”

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In recent years, Twitter has stepped up its content moderation practices in the form of labeling or removing rule-breaking posts and deplatforming offending accounts, particularly during major events like the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 election, and the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Musk has taken the opposite approach at his company: He recently announced that he was denying requests to have SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet services block Russian media sources. “Sorry to be a free speech absolutist,” he wrote of the decision (in a tweet, of course). He also has a track record of personally promoting coronavirus misinformation.

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But Twitter’s recent moderation policy changes actually support the ability of users to have an active and open conversation, according to the researchers I spoke to. They hope that Twitter doesn’t roll them back given Musk’s arrival. “I don’t believe that removing labels is a good thing, because freedom of speech does not mean saying something and not being accountable for it,” said Orestis Papakyriakopoulos, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy who has conducted studies on the efficacy of labels. “In specific cases, labels can also have a deliberative effect so users can see a different perspective.” Sanderson further noted that allowing for more hate speech would be to Twitter’s detriment. “It would be normatively disastrous if they went back on some of their public statements trying to defend more marginalized or vulnerable voices,” he said. “They’ve made a lot of progress on removing hate speech, and we know from both qualitative and quantitative literature that doing so helps more folks engage in conversation publicly.” It can be hard to use a platform to share your ideas if you’re at risk of getting pummeled with threats.

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It’s unlikely that there would be immediate and drastic changes to the way that moderation on the platform functions, given that Musk only has a 9.2 percent stake, and the fact that Twitter is under both regulatory and market restrictions. “You have different notions of freedom of speech in every country, and already platforms are struggling with that because they need also to have common moderation tactics curated for the country,” said Papakyriakopoulos, who added that speech regulations vary widely around the world, making it difficult to overhaul how moderation works on a platform that’s used globally. “If problematic content starts being distributed more and more, and the platform does nothing, it’s going to be accountable.” There’s also the danger of driving away portions of the Twitter user base if the platform becomes too rife with misinformation and toxicity. Musk himself might not care about that—he likely didn’t buy Twitter shares to make money, since his investment is such a small portion of his total $219 billion wealth, so it’s doubtful that he’s going to be motivated to grow its user base for profit.

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Interestingly, some of Musk’s ideas aren’t all that controversial. One of the few concrete fixes to Twitter that Musk has proposed is allowing users to choose how they want their feeds to be organized, by making its algorithms open-source, instead of requiring everyone to rely on the platform’s engagement-based algorithm to pick tweets to show them. Tracy Chou, CEO of the anti-harassment Twitter tool Block Party, is optimistic about Musk’s potential influence on the platform due to this support for algorithmic choice, which she contends could address many of the moderation issues the platform is currently facing. It’s an idea that former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has endorsed as well. “We’ve seen what happens when the platforms have all that power and are building for the best average experience, but not really catering to the very diverse demands of their user bases,” said Chou. Block Party is an example of this vision in practice, as it’s an add-on that lets people create customized block lists and curate the sorts of mentions they want to see. Making Twitter’s algorithms open-source would complement Block Party’s goals of allowing users to personalize the experience.

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Twitter has already experimented with allowing users to set their feeds to chronological order, but Chou notes that there could be a variety of other options too. Users could configure their feed to only show news from mainstream media, or to only allow kid-friendly content. Chou likened this framework to choosing between getting your news from the tabloids at the grocery checkout aisle or subscribing to the New York Times. Users become their own moderators in a way, and Twitter wouldn’t have to wrestle as much with the free speech conundrums that enforcing its content policies can present. “If we do want to allow people to say what they want to say, it will increase all forms of speech, including potentially the bad stuff,” Chou said. “But you balance that by giving individuals more control over whether or not they want to engage.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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