PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) — Tesla CEO Elon Musk has laid out bold, if still vague, plans to turn Twitter into a place of “maximum fun” once he buys the platform from social media for 44 billion dollars and the private aura.
But adopting what at the moment is little more than a mixture of vague principles and technical details could be considerably more complicated than he suggests.
Here’s what could happen if Musk follows through on his ideas about free speech, fighting spam, and opening the “black box” of artificial intelligence tools that amplify social media trends.
FREE SPEECH OF THE CITY
Musk’s most feisty priority — but also the one with the most vague roadmap — is to make Twitter a “politically neutral” digital public square for global discourse that allows for as much free speech as the laws of each countries allow it.
He acknowledged that his plans to overhaul Twitter could irritate the political left and especially please the right. He didn’t say exactly what he would do about the permanently banned account of former President Donald Trump or other right-wing leaders whose tweets violated company restrictions. against hate speech, violent threats or harmful misinformation.
If Musk goes in that direction, it could mean bringing back not just Trump, but “many, many others who have been removed as a result of QAnon conspiracies, targeted harassment of journalists and activists, and of course all the accounts that were deleted after January. 6,” said Joan Donovan, who studies misinformation at Harvard University. “That could potentially represent hundreds of thousands of people.”
Musk hasn’t ruled out suspending some accounts, but says those bans should be temporary. His latest criticism focused on what he described as Twitter’s 2020 “incredibly inappropriate” blocking of a New York Post article about Hunter Biden, which the company called an error and corrected within 24 hours.
OPEN SOURCE ALGORITHMS
Musk’s longstanding interest in AI is reflected in one of the most specific proposals he outlined in his merger announcement – the promise to “make algorithms open source to increase trust.” He talks about systems that categorize content to decide what appears on users’ feeds.
Suspicion is part of the root of distrust, at least for Musk supporters, is the tradition among American political conservatives about ‘shadow banning’ on social media. This is a supposedly invisible feature to reduce the scope of misbehaving users without deactivating their accounts. There is no evidence that Twitter’s platform is biased against conservatives; studies have found the opposite with regard to conservative media in particular.
Musk called for releasing the underlying computer code powering Twitter’s newsfeed for public inspection on the GitHub coder hangout. But such “code-level transparency” gives users little insight into how Twitter works for them without the data the algorithms process, said Nick Diakopoulos, a computer scientist at Northwestern University.
Diakopoulos said there are good intentions in Musk’s larger goal of helping people find out why their tweets are being promoted or downgraded and whether human moderators or automated systems are making those choices. But it is not an easy task. Too much transparency about how individual tweets are categorized, for example, can allow “dishonest people” to game the system and manipulate an algorithm to gain maximum exposure to their cause, Diakopoulos said.
‘DEFEAT SPAM BOTS’
Spam bots impersonating real people have been a personal nuisance for Musk, whose popularity on Twitter has inspired countless impersonator accounts that use his image and name – often to promote cryptocurrency scams. which seem to come from the CEO of Tesla.
Of course, Twitter users, including Musk, “don’t want spam,” said David Greene, director of civil liberties at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But who defines what counts as a spam bot?
“Do you mean all the bots like, you know, if I’m a Twitter bot that just scrapes historical photos of fruit? I choose to follow that. Isn’t that allowed to exist?” he said.
There are also plenty of spam-filled Twitter accounts, at least partially run by real people, ranging from those selling products to those promoting polarizing political content to meddling in elections in other countries.
“AUTHENTICATE ALL HUMANS”
Musk has repeatedly said he wants Twitter to “authenticate all humans,” an ambiguous proposition that may be related to his desire to rid the website of spam accounts.
Stepping up mundane identity checks — such as two-factor authentication or pop-ups that ask which of six photos shows a school bus — could discourage anyone from trying to amass an army of fake accounts.
Musk could also consider offering more people a “blue check” — the verification checkmark sported on notable Twitter accounts — like Musk’s — to show they are who they say they are. Musk suggested users purchase the ticks as part of a premium service.
But some digital rights activists fear the moves could lead to a “real name” policy akin to Facebook’s approach of requiring people to validate their full names and use them in their profiles. This would seem to contradict Musk’s emphasis on free speech by muzzling anonymous whistleblowers or people living under authoritarian regimes where it can be dangerous for a dissenting message to be traced to a specific individual.
TWITTER WITHOUT ADS?
Musk floated the idea of an ad-free Twitter, even though it wasn’t one of the priorities outlined in the official merger announcement. This may be because cutting the main means of making money from the business would be a difficult task for even the richest person in the world.
Ads accounted for more than 92% of Twitter’s revenue in the January-March fiscal quarter. The company launched a premium subscription service last year – known as Twitter Blue – but doesn’t appear to have made much headway in getting people to pay for it.
Musk has made it clear that he favors a stronger subscription model for Twitter that gives more people an ad-free option. It would also fit in with its efforts to loosen Twitter’s content restrictions — which brands largely favor because they don’t want their ads surrounded by offensive and hateful tweets.
Musk has tweeted and voiced so many propositions for Twitter that it can be hard to know which ones he takes seriously. He joined the popular call for an “edit button” – which Twitter says it is already working on – that would allow people to correct a tweet soon after posting it. A less serious proposal from Musk suggested converting Twitter’s downtown San Francisco headquarters into a homeless shelter “since nobody shows up anyway” – a comment taken more as a hand-dig. of Twitter in the age of the pandemic than an altruistic vision of building.
Musk did not return an email request to clarify his plans.
AP Technology Editor Barbara Ortutay contributed to this report.