He’s finally done it, and “free speech” is the key motivation. After weeks of strategic moves and tweets, the world’s richest man Elon Musk is officially set to buy Twitter, with the board approving his $44 billion offer (AU$61.4 billion).
In what will largely be a side project for Musk — given he currently runs the world’s largest and most innovative car manufacturer Tesla, as well as rocket and spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX, and tunneling firm The Boring Company — Musk has already revealed some plans for the social network. He wants to get rid of the automated and fake accountants, relax content restrictions to enable more “free speech”, and address the platform’s current advertiser model.
But will Musk’s changes help or hinder the volume of trolling that occurs on the platform, particularly trolling aimed at women?
Musk has not previously expressed much concern for the harassment that occurs on Twitter. Nor has he suggested how Twitter trolling might prevent users from using the platform as they want to use it.
A number of high-profile female spokespeople have recently left or taken breaks from Twitter in Australia due to trolling, including Leigh Sales and Brittany Higgins. These are high-profile examples, but there are numerous other women with far fewer followers who are also regularly subjected to trolling from both real and fake accounts.
Twitter has a number of “safety” features that can be used for reporting harassment and for blocking and muting users. Women’s Agenda once ran sessions with Twitter showing women how to use these features and highlighting how and where the platform was looking to address safety. My concern would be what happens to these safety features in a world where Twitter’s future owner has expressed a desire to place fewer restrictions on content.
Twitter has long struggled with fake accounts and bots. Given Musk’s expertise in product innovation, he may indeed bring a new approach to some of these challenges. He has expressed interest in getting every user verified but also pushing to express caution over permanent bans on real users.
Fake accounts are often responsible for pushing populist movements, manipulating news events and contributing to fake news being created and further shared. Research on Twitter revealed that more than half of the accounts sharing and discussing COVID-19 based information were actually bots.
If Musk can solve the bot issue, it could vastly improve the platform and address bot-based trolling. However, Musk also looks set to remove more content restrictions — and possibly pave the way for Donald Trump to return to Twitter, having been permanently banned following the January 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
Musk’s purchase sees him taking a social platform with 217 million users. It has nowhere near the reach of Facebook, but it is largely seen as significantly influential (although less so in Australia, than in other markets) given how it is used by world leaders as well as journalists and other prominent spokespeople.
Musk is also an active Twitter user and has 84 million followers of his own. He is known for being controversial and sometimes offensive on the platform and at times outright childish.
A couple of weeks back he said during a TED interview that it’s important there is “an inclusive arena for free speech” and described Twitter as the “de facto town square”.
“So it’s just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
Musk had been quietly buying up Twitter shares before being revealed as the largest single shareholder earlier this month. He first issued his takeover bid on the 14th of April, which was initially opposed by the board who went on to enact a “poison pill” strategy, designed to slow down takeover moves. However, has now approved the offer after Musk revealed he could fund the deal, with a cool $21 billion of his own money, alongside funding from financial institutions.
Earlier this month, Musk said he didn’t care about the “economics” of Twitter, which has long been considered an “underperformer” as a business. But given how much he has now personally invested, the loan he has taken and secured against Tesla, and the financing he’s brought in, it’s not something he can ignore.
Still, he says his prime motivation is free speech.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk posted to Twitter following confirmation of the deal. “Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and users to unlock it.”
If Musk can promote free speech in a way that actually brings more women onto the platform as active users — given how many have turned away, due to trolling or the threat of trolling — then he will be on to a winner.
But if his free speech means removing or further weakening already inadequate safety features that allow users to report abuse — then Twitter may lose more active users, become a hotbed of trolling and extremist content, and ultimately an even worse “underperformer” as a business.