Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, in a US$44 billion deal on 25 April 2022, 11 days after announcing his bid for the company. Twitter announced that the public company will become .
In a for his initial bid for the company, Musk stated, “I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”
As a , I find that Musk’s ownership of Twitter and his stated reasons for buying the company raise important issues. Those issues stem from the nature of the social media platform and what sets it apart from others.
What Makes Twitter Unique
Twitter occupies a unique niche. Its short chunks of text and threading foster real-time conversations among thousands of people, which makes it popular with celebrities, media personalities and politicians alike.
Social media analysts talk about the half-life of content on a platform, meaning the time it takes for a piece of content to reach 50% of its total lifetime engagement, usually measured in number of views or popularity based metrics. The average half life of a tweet is , compared to five hours for Facebook posts, 20 hours for Instagram posts, 24 hours for LinkedIn posts and 20 days for YouTube videos. The much shorter half life illustrates the central role Twitter has come to occupy in driving real-time conversations as events unfold.
Twitter’s ability to shape real-time discourse, as well as the ease with which data, including geo-tagged data, can be gathered from Twitter has made it a gold mine for researchers to analyze a variety of societal phenomena, ranging from public health to politics. Twitter data has been used to predict , measure , and model .
Tweets that are part of a conversation are , and, even though much of a tweet’s engagement is frontloaded, the Twitter archive . This positions Twitter as a and a de facto fact checker.
Changes on Musk’s Mind
A crucial issue is how Musk’s ownership of Twitter, and private control of social media platforms generally, affect the broader public well-being. In a series of deleted tweets, Musk made several , including adding an edit button for tweets and granting automatic verification marks to premium users.
There is no experimental evidence about how an edit button would change information transmission on Twitter. However, it’s possible to extrapolate from previous research that analyzed deleted tweets.
There are numerous ways to , which allows researchers to study them. While some studies show between users who delete their tweets and those who don’t, these findings suggest that deleting tweets is a .
Analyzing deleting behavior can also yield valuable clues about . Similarly, if Twitter adds an edit button, analyzing the patterns of editing behavior could provide insights into Twitter users’ motivations and how they present themselves.
Studies of bot-generated activity on Twitter have concluded that . Given , allowing users – whether they are automated bots or actual people – the option to edit their tweets could become another weapon in the disinformation arsenal used by bots and propagandists. Editing tweets could allow users to selectively distort what they said, or deny making inflammatory remarks, which could complicate efforts to trace misinformation.
Musk has also indicated his intention to combat twitter bots, or automated accounts that post rapidly and repeatedly in the guise of people. He has called for .
Given and other malicious personal harms online, it’s important for user authentication methods to preserve privacy. This is particularly important for activists, dissidents and whistleblowers who face threats for their online activities. Mechanisms such as can enable authentication without sacrificing anonymity.
Twitter’s Content Moderation and Revenue Model
To understand Musk’s motivations and what lies next for social media platforms such as Twitter, it’s important to consider the gargantuan – and opaque – involving multiple technologies wielded by ad networks, social media companies and publishers. Advertising is the .
Musk’s vision is to rather than advertising. Without having to worry about attracting and retaining advertisers, Twitter would have less pressure to focus on content moderation. This could make Twitter a sort of freewheeling opinion site for paying subscribers. In contrast, until now Twitter has been in its attempts to address disinformation.
Musk’s description of a is troubling in light of the algorithmic harms caused by social media platforms. Research has shown a host of these harms, such as to users, used to glean information from these platforms, and the impact on those .
Testimony by Facebook whistleblower and recent regulatory efforts such as the show there is broad public concern about the role played by technology platforms in shaping popular discourse and public opinion. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter .
Because of Musk’s other businesses, Twitter’s in the sensitive industries of aviation and the automobile industry automatically creates a conflict of interest, not to mention affects the disclosure of necessary for shareholders. Musk has already been accused of .
Twitter’s own concluded that there needs to be a community-led approach to build better algorithms. A very creative exercise developed by the MIT Media Lab asks middle schoolers to . Perhaps it’s time to ask Musk to do the same with Twitter.
(Anjana Susarla is a Professor of Information Systems at the Michigan State University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)