March 29, 2023


Elon Musk is taking Twitter’s “public square” private

5 min read

ELON MUSK, the world’s richest man, has described Twitter as the “de facto public town square”. On April 25th he struck a deal to take it private in what will be one of the largest leveraged buy-outs in history. Mr Musk, the boss of companies including Tesla, a carmaker, and SpaceX, an aerospace firm, put together an all-cash offer worth about $44bn. He is stumping up the bulk of the financing himself, in the form of $21bn in equity and a $12.5bn loan against his shares in Tesla. If it is a big deal in business terms, it could be bigger still in what it means for the regulation of online speech.

Twitter isn’t an obviously attractive business. With 217m daily users it is an order of magnitude smaller than Facebook, the world’s largest social network, and has slipped well behind the likes of Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. Its share price has bumped along for years: last month it was lower than at its flotation in 2013. It is like a modern-day Craigslist, writes Benedict Evans, a tech analyst: “Coasting on network effects, building nothing much, and getting unbundled piece by piece.”

But Mr Musk isn’t interested in Twitter as a business. “I don’t care about the economics at all,” he told a TED conference earlier this month. “This is just my strong, intuitive sense that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilisation.”

His willingness to spend a big chunk of his fortune on making Twitter more “inclusive” follows a period in which it has tightened its content moderation. A decade ago Twitter executives joked that the company was “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party”. But the presidency of Donald Trump and the covid-19 pandemic persuaded the company (and most other social networks) that free speech had some drawbacks. Mr Trump was eventually banned from Twitter, as well as Facebook, YouTube and others, following the Capitol riot of January 2021. Misinformation about covid and other subjects was labelled and blocked. In the first half of 2021, Twitter removed 5.9m pieces of content, up from 1.9m two years earlier. In the same period 1.2m accounts were suspended, an increase from 700,000.

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How might Mr Musk change things? He has said that he will publish Twitter’s code, including its recommendation algorithm, in a bid to be more transparent. He proposes to authenticate all users and to “defeat the spam bots”. And he will be “very cautious with permanent bans”, preferring “time-outs”, he told TED. This suggests a reprieve for Mr Trump and other banned politicians, as advocated by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, which counts Mr Musk as one of its largest donors.

The spectre of reinstating the tweeter-in-chief appals many on the left. So does Mr Musk’s impatience with what he describes as “woke” culture (“The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable,” he tweeted earlier this month, following the video-streamer’s loss of subscribers). A poll in America by YouGov this month found that whereas 54% of Republicans thought that Mr Musk buying Twitter would be good for society, only 7% of Democrats agreed.

Since Twitter users lean Democratic, his plan could prove unpopular. Even apolitical users may not like the look of Twitter with freer speech. Moderation weeds out bullying, abuse and other forms of speech that are legal but make for an unpleasant experience online. Social networks that began life with the aim of allowing anything legal, such as Parler and Gettr, eventually tightened up their censorship after being deluged with racism and porn.

If Twitter were to take a purist line on free speech, the immediate winners might therefore be its more censorious rivals, suggests Evelyn Douek, an expert on online speech at Harvard Law School. Until now, the main social networks have set roughly similar content-moderation policies, each reluctant to be an outlier. “You can imagine a Twitter with Trump back on its platform just being in the headlines all day, every day, while the other platforms sat back and ate their popcorn,” she says.

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Mr Musk has never seemed to mind being in the headlines. Even so, he may find it harder than he expects to do away with moderation. Boycotts by advertisers, who provide nearly all of Twitter’s revenue, may not bother him. But Twitter’s app relies on distribution by Apple’s and Google’s app stores; both suspended Parler after the Capitol riot. Governments are also tightening their laws on online speech. On April 23rd the European Union announced that it had agreed on the outline of a new Digital Services Act, which will oblige social networks to police speech on their platforms more closely. Britain is cooking up a still-stricter Online Safety Bill. Twitter fielded 43,000 content-removal requests based on local laws in first half of 2021, more than double the number two years earlier.

Another question is whether Mr Musk will manage to stick to his own principles. Social networks face a conflict of interest when the people setting moderation policies are also in charge of growth, notes Ms Douek. Would Mr Musk’s approach to free speech be swayed by his many other interests? Tesla, for instance, hopes to expand in China, whose state media are given prominent warning labels by Twitter. As a Twitter user, Mr Musk has a record of using the platform in a vindictive way. He was sued (unsuccessfully) after labelling one online enemy a “pedo guy”; last week, after a spat with Bill Gates, he posted an unflattering picture of the Microsoft founder with the caption “in case u need to lose a boner fast”.

Mr Musk insists that as the platform’s owner he will be even-handed. “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means,” he tweeted on April 25th, shortly before the company’s board accepted his offer. Some users had other ideas: on the same day, one trending topic was “Trump’s Twitter”.

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