By TOM KRISHER and MATT O’BRIEN
Tesla CEO Elon Musk stands to be the next owner of Twitter, after promising about $ 44 billion to buy the social platform and take it private. Assuming that happens, next on his agenda will be planning how he will fulfill his promises to develop new Twitter features, open up its public inspection algorithm, and defeat “spambots” on the service that mimic real users.
He will also have to get the company to start “authenticating all people”, as he described it in a statement quoted in Monday’s press release announcing the acquisition. What exactly Musk meant by the phrase is still unclear.
So does the question of whether his ideas are technologically feasible and how we know whether these changes will benefit users or serve another purpose.
Experts who have studied content moderation and researched Twitter for years have expressed doubts that Musk knows exactly what he is getting into. After all, there are plenty of nascent examples of “free speech” -focused platforms launched in the last few years as Twitter antidote, mostly by conservatives dissatisfied with the company’s repression of hatred, harassment and misinformation. Many have struggled to deal with toxic content, and at least one has been cut off by its own technology providers in protest.
“This move just shows how effective (moderation functions) have been at annoying those in power,” said Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology at the University of Notre Dame. “I would be concerned about how this would change Twitter’s values.”
The fact that no other bidders appeared in public before Musk’s deal was a sign that other potential buyers could find Twitter too difficult to improve, said Third Bridge analyst Scott Kessler.
“This platform is pretty much the same we’ve had over the last decade or so,” Kessler said. “You’ve had a lot of smart people trying to figure out what to do, and they’ve had problems. It’s probably going to be hard to come by.”
Musk received some exuberant, albeit very abstract, praise from an unexpected team – Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, who praised Musk’s decision to take Twitter “back from Wall Street” and tweeted that he trusts Musk’s mission to “expand the light”. of consciousness “- a reference to Dorsey’s notion that” Twitter is the closest we have to a global consciousness. “
But others familiar with Twitter say they are still appalled by Musk’s successful bid for the company.
“Twitter will essentially let a male child take over their platform,” said Leslie Miley, a former Twitter employee who has also worked for Google and Apple. Miley, who was the only black engineer at Twitter in a management position when he left the company in 2015, reiterated doubts about Musk’s understanding of the platform’s complexity.
“I’m not sure if Elon knows what he’s getting,” Miley said. “He might just discover that having Twitter is very different from wanting Twitter.”
The more tangible approach to content moderation that Musk envisions has many users worried that the platform will become more of a haven for disinformation, hate speech, and bullying, something it has worked hard to mitigate in recent years. Wall Street analysts said if he goes too far, it could alienate advertisers as well.
The shares of Twitter Inc. rose more than 5% Monday to $ 51.70 per share. shares. On April 14, Musk announced an offer to buy Twitter for $ 54.20 per share. While the stock has risen sharply since Musk made its bid, it is well below the high of $ 77 per share. share, it reached in February 2021.
Musk has described himself as an “absolute freedom of speech,” but is also known for blocking or belittling other Twitter users who question or disagree with him.
In recent weeks, he has proposed easing Twitter content restrictions – such as the rules that suspended former President Donald Trump’s account – while freeing the platform for fake “spambot” accounts and switching away from advertising as its primary revenue model. Musk believes he can increase revenue through subscriptions that give paying customers a better experience – possibly even an ad-free version of Twitter.
Asked during a recent TED interview if there are any limits to his notion of “free speech,” Musk said Twitter would comply with national laws restricting free speech around the world. Beyond that, he said, he would be “very reluctant” to delete posts or permanently ban users who violate company rules.
It will not be perfect, Musk added, “but I think we want it to really have the perception and reality that speech is as free as reasonably possible.”
Following the announcement of the deal, the NAACP issued a statement urging Musk not to allow Trump, the 45th president, back on the platform.
“Do not allow 45 to return to the platform,” the civil rights organization said in a statement. “Do not allow Twitter to become a petri dish of hate speech or lies that undermine our democracy.”
As both candidate and president, Trump made Twitter a powerful megaphone to speak directly to the public, and he often used arousing and divisive language on hot-button topics. He was permanently banned from service in the wake of the January 6 storm of the Capitol.
“If Musk either fires or expels the team on Twitter that is committed to keeping it clean and making it less hateful, he will see an immediate drop in user activity,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “I think he’ll find out pretty quickly that it’s bad for the business to invite those bigots in again.”
In Europe, officials reminded Musk of a new law, the Digital Services Act, that will force tech companies to intensify police control of their online platforms.
“Whether it’s cars or social media, every company operating in Europe must abide by our rules – regardless of their shareholding,” tweeted Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner responsible for the bloc’s internal market. “Mr Musk knows this well. He is familiar with European rules on the car industry and will quickly adapt to the Digital Services Act.”
Some users said Monday that they planned to leave the platform if Musk took over. To which he responded on Twitter: “I hope even my worst critics stay on Twitter, because that’s what freedom of speech means.”
While Twitter’s user base of more than 200 million is still much smaller than that of competitors like Facebook and TikTok, the service is popular with celebrities, world leaders, journalists and intellectuals. Musk himself is a prolific tweeter with a fan base competing with several pop stars in the ranks of the most popular accounts.
Krisher reported from Detroit. O’Brien reported from Providence, Rhode Island. AP Business Writers Marcy Gordon in Washington, Barbara Ortutay in Oakland, California, Kelvin Chan in London and Sam Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.