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New Delhi: After nearly a month of speculation, social media platform Twitter on Monday, April 25, agreed to be acquired by tech mogul Elon Musk for nearly $44 billion.
The news from the company’s board of directors came just weeks after Musk – known widely for founding and leading businesses such as Tesla and SpaceX wide-ranging business ventures – launched his unsolicited, take-it-or-leave-it offer.
Over the last decade, Twitter’s transformation has seen it catapult from being a simple microblogging website to becoming the de facto town square in countries across the world – a place that helps drive the mainstream news cycle and where more often than not, key ‘culture wars’ are waged by prominent individuals from across the political spectrum.
How much of the platform is set to change, with Musk as its new owner? And what will be the ripple effects of these changes? The Wire breaks it down.
Free speech and content moderation
Perhaps the most significant change is what will be allowed on Twitter and what won’t. At a recent TED2022 conference, Musk outlined his free speech manifesto for the company.
In a nutshell, he believes that Twitter should not regulate content beyond what is required by the laws of the countries it operates in.
While this basic principle may not seem at odds with a company that once called itself the “free speech wing of the free speech party”, a hands-off approach goes against the grain of proactive content moderation that most Silicon Valley-based social media platforms have adopted over the last few years.
The most contentious call made by Facebook and Twitter in recent times has been the permanent ban handed out to former US president Donald Trump over content that he posted regarding the 2021 United States Capitol attack.
While Musk has not addressed this specifically, on the question of difficult content moderation calls, he said at the conference: “If it is a grey area, I would say let the tweet exist. In a case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you don’t necessarily promote that tweet. I’m not saying I have all the answers here, but I do think we want to be very reluctant to delete things, and just be very cautious with permanent bans — timeouts, I think, are better.”
In a tweet back in January 2021, Musk noted: “A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”
Edit buttons and long-form tweets
While Twitter’s future product roadmap is anybody’s guess, Musk has thrown initial support behind two features that most of the company’s user base has asked for at one point or another.
The first is the ability to edit or change your tweets after they’ve been published. At the recent TED2022 conference, the billionaire said he wants Twitter to have an “edit” button and believes the problems critics raise can be resolved. “I think you only have the edit capability for a short period of time, and zero out all retweets and favorites” after an edit, he noted.
Shortly after that, Musk polled his followers on whether they’d want an edit button. About 74% of more than 4.4 million respondents voted yes. Twitter confirmed after the poll it is working on an edit button, adding, “No, we didn’t get the idea from a poll.”
The second is the question of whether Twitter will have an in-built option to allow for more long-form tweets.
Twitter currently has a 280 character limit, which was increased from 140 characters in 2017.
Spam bots and making public the ‘algorithm’
The tech mogul once called spam bots “the single most annoying problem” on Twitter. Even a casual Twitter user would have had run-ins with the anonymous accounts that pop up to promote trends or tweets across the political spectrum.
If our twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 21, 2022
The question, therefore, is what Musk would do differently to solve this problem. Recently, the billionaire replied to a tweet that Twitter would “authenticate all real humans” under his ownership, an idea that does not really provide a solution.
But perhaps the most interesting development is Musk’s fears over the perception of bias in Twitter’s algorithm.
“I’m worried about de facto bias in ‘the Twitter algorithm’ having a major effect on public discourse. How do we know what’s really happening?,” he tweeted in late March 2022
Twitter algorithm should be open source
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 24, 2022
At the TED conference, Musk also told the interviewer on stage that he wanted to publish Twitter’s ranking algorithm for the public to examine: “It should be on GitHub.”
Algorithmic transparency is a noble goal, especially at a time when actors from different political camps are quick to accuse the platform of shadow-banning popular handles, but it is unclear whether if users are allowed to see how the sauce is made, they will be happy with how it tastes.
Conflicting business interests
Finally, the move to acquire Twitter will open up a host of business conflicts for Musk’s other companies. On Tuesday morning, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos surprisingly chose to go public with these concerns.
In an initial quote-tweet that laid out Tesla’s business interests in China, Bezos asked: “Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?”
My own answer to this question is probably not. The more likely outcome in this regard is complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship at Twitter.
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) April 26, 2022
In follow-up tweets, Bezos added that it was unlikely to change things at Twitter, but could pose complications for Tesla in China.
The same argument can be made for India: Tesla has for some time been trying to convince the Indian government to go easy on import duties. Over the last year, in the same time frame, Twitter has found itself in a confrontation with the Union government over a controversy that involved the social media platform refusing to censor Caravan magazine’s handle.
How will these equations – now inherently connected by Musk’s ownership – play out in the months and years ahead?