Why Elon Musk's Plans to 'Fix' Twitter Will Be Harder to Implement Than He Thinks

 Elon Musk is purchasing Twitter. After months of publicly toying with the idea, the world’s richest man successfully negotiated a deal to buy the social media platform for $44 billion.

On Monday, Musk gave a statement with a shortlist of goals for the platform, many of which he has recently floated to his 83 million followers on Twitter. “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,” he tweeted. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spambots, and authenticating all humans.”

But are Musk’s goals actually feasible? Can he really transform Twitter into a less-moderated forum where free speech flourishes—and at the same time make it a service that generates more revenue from subscribers than advertisers? Sure, he’s the world’s wealthiest private citizen, but he’ll need Twitter to churn out income if only to pay back the banks that loaned him $25 billion for the purchase. Here’s a look at Musk’s proposed changes, where Twitter stands on them currently, and what history–and experts–tell us about whether they might be successfully implemented.

‘Free speech absolutist’

Musk called himself a “free speech absolutist” in a March tweet. Last January, three days after President Trump received a permanent Twitter suspension for his “risk of further incitement of violence” following the Jan. 6 insurrection, Musk tweeted: “A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”

Musk’s hardline rhetoric about free speech flies in the face of Twitter’s recent evolution in this area. In 2018, the site came under fire after an MIT study showed that misinformation spread faster on Twitter than real news. Since then, the company has stepped up its efforts to combat hate speech and increase user safety, including the ability for its users to flag false information. The controversial Twitter account Libs of Tik Tok was twice suspended for “hateful conduct”—and last week, the company announced it would ban advertisements that challenge widely-accepted research on climate change.

But misinformation, propaganda, and extremist views are still omnipresent on the site, especially surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Musk has said that hate speech would be banned, he has yet to parse out the gray areas, and it seems possible that more lenient policies for content moderation could lead to more of the toxic behavior that Twitter has been trying to stamp out for years.

And fewer guardrails around speech could be bad for Twitter’s bottom line: advertisers might be less likely to pay money for posts that might sit next to racism, bigotry, or sexism.

Removing ads

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Calif. on April 21, 2022.
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

In a now-deleted Tweet, Musk argued for the removal of all ads from Twitter, writing, “The power of corporations to dictate policy is greatly enhanced if Twitter depends on advertising money to survive.”

Twitter is almost wholly reliant on ads to stay afloat financially. In Q4 2021, the company reported advertising revenue of $1.41 billion out of $1.57 billion in total revenue during that quarter. In November, the company rolled out its first consumer subscription package, Twitter Blue, which costs $3 a month for access to “premium features.” But Chief Executive Parag Agrawal said in February that Blue is “not critical” to meeting its revenue projections, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Musk has expressed support for a subscription model but wants it to be cheaper than it currently is now. At a TED conference this month, he said that his interest in Twitter “is not a way to make money.” But he will need for the platform to continue to earn revenue because he paid for more than half of it in financing from Morgan Stanley and other institutions. In order to service his debt, he will likely need to not just preserve Twitter’s ad revenue but grow it.

Spambots and human authentication

Musk called spambots the “single most annoying problem” on Twitter. Bots, which often promote crypto-based scams these days, flood users’ feeds in an attempt to lure unsuspecting victims.

Twitter already has a rigorous process for weeding out fake accounts: the company uses software during the registration process to detect patterns of automation. But bootmakers are getting more slippery and sophisticated, allowing many to pass through Twitter’s censors undetected. Meanwhile, it’s much harder to sniff out manual fakes, in which real people create fake accounts to spread disinformation or defraud people. One 21-year-old, for instance, repeatedly impersonated Trump family members on Twitter for a year, even tricking the President.

At the moment, Musk seems to believe that the best solution to the bot's problem is to authenticate “all real humans,” or to have accounts overtly linked to other personal identifiers, whether it be a phone number, and email address, or a photo. But this idea has raised the ire of many Twitter users who like the app precisely for its pseudonymity. “I would rather have spambots than have to “authenticate” my human identity. I’ve made it this far without ever associating my government name with my extracurricular activities,” wrote one user in response to Musk.

“How can we ensure the people from at-risk regions who have to be under pseudonyms to enjoy the freedom to express the truth while authenticating they’re real humans without blowing their cover?,” the engineer Jane Manchun Wong wrote. Others worried that a detailed list of users, even if kept internally by Twitter, would be vulnerable to seizure or hacks from governments or malicious actors.

Michael Saylor, CEO of the business intelligence firm MicroStrategy, responded to Musk with his own suggestion last week: that users should be required to post “a one-time security deposit” that they forfeit if they are reported and found to be acting in malice. This solution, however, could lead to collective bullying, in which a group with a vendetta could mass-report a real individual to get them de-verified and stripped of their deposit.

Open-source algorithms

What people see on social media is usually the work of complicated algorithms, whose components are often closely guarded secrets of Big Tech. Musk wants Twitter to open-source its algorithms—i.e., to publicly share the decision-making behind what tweets get shown to users. If someone’s tweets are “emphasized or de-emphasized, that action should remain apparent,” he argued at the TED conference. Many agree with him generally, especially in the wake of the 2021 Facebook papers, which showed how skewed algorithms can have disastrous consequences.

But several experts have argued that the process of making such information public is far more complicated than Musk is asserting. “The algorithm is just the tip of the iceberg.… The rest of the iceberg is all of this data that Twitter has,” Robin Burke, a professor of information science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told the Washington Post this month. Even if the sprawling computer code was released to the public, Burke argues, much of it would be completely illegible to most viewers—and would be especially useless without the inserted data, which contains plenty of private and personal information.

An edit button

When Musk polled his followers on April 4 as to whether they wanted Twitter to implement an Edit button, they responded resoundingly: 73% of 4.4 million votes were “yes.” Calls for an Edit button have long been omnipresent on Twitter, while Reddit and Facebook have Edit features that work fairly well for their users.

But while an edit button would allow users to fix typos, it would also open the door for bad actors to alter the record of public conversation. Trolls could publish a widely agreed-upon statement in order to rack up likes and retweets, only to change it to something heinous after the fact. Hackers could break into the accounts of governments or corporations and alter information. Ben Sangster, a former Twitter software engineer, wrote that while he was part of an internal effort to create an Edit button in 2015, his team “concluded that the potential for abuse was too high to move forward.”

There’s also a smaller technical issue: Twitter allows third-party apps and developers, including widely-used ones like TweetDeck, to download tweets in real-time. Once a tweet is downloaded by a platform like TweetDeck, there’s no way for Twitter to recall or edit it, Lewis Mitchell, a data science professor at the University of Adelaide, wrote in a recent article.

Twitter itself has announced it is working on an Edit button but has remained fairly tight-lipped on any details. One user who responded to Musk’s poll suggested that the Edit button should only be available for a few minutes after someone publishes and that the original Tweet remains available to the public. Musk called the proposal “reasonable.”

While Musk faces plenty of challenges, he’s overcome daunting obstacles before, whether at SpaceX or Tesla. And he acknowledged on Twitter that he is ready to hear from his critics, no matter how loud they might be: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter because that is what free speech means.”

Elon Musk reached an agreement to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion on Monday, promising a more lenient touch to police content on the social media platform where he — the world’s richest person — promotes his interests, attacks critics, and opines on a wide range of issues to more than 83 million followers.

The outspoken Tesla CEO has said he wanted to own and privatize Twitter because he thinks it’s not living up to its potential as a platform for free speech.

Musk said in a joint statement with Twitter that he wants to make the service “better than ever” with new features while getting rid of automated “spam″ accounts and making its algorithms open to the public to increase trust.

“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,” the 50-year-old Musk said, adding hearts, stars, and rocket emojis in a tweet that highlighted the statement.

The more hands-off approach to content moderation that Musk envisions has many users concerned that the platform will become more of a haven for disinformation, hate speech, and bullying, something it has worked hard in recent years to mitigate. Wall Street analysts said if he goes too far, it could also alienate advertisers.

The deal was cemented roughly two weeks after the billionaire first revealed a 9% stake in the platform. Musk said last week that he had lined up $46.5 billion in financing to buy Twitter, putting pressure on the company’s board to negotiate a deal.

Twitter said the transaction was unanimously approved by its board of directors and is expected to close in 2022, pending regulatory sign-off and the approval of shareholders.

Shares of Twitter Inc. rose more than 5% Monday to $51.70 per share. On April 14, Musk announced an offer to buy Twitter for $54.20 per share. While the stock is up sharply since Musk made his offer, it is well below the high of $77 per share it reached in February 2021.

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Musk has described himself as a “free-speech absolutist” but is also known for blocking or disparaging other Twitter users who question or disagree with him.

In recent weeks, he has proposed relaxing Twitter content restrictions — such as the rules that suspended former President Donald Trump’s account — while ridding the platform of fake “spambot” accounts and shifting away from advertising as its primary revenue model. Musk believes he can increase revenue through subscriptions that give paying customers a better experience — possibly even an ad-free version of Twitter.

Asked during a recent TED interview if there are any limits to his notion of “free speech,” Musk said Twitter would abide by national laws that restrict speech around the world. Beyond that, he said, he’d be “very reluctant” to delete posts or permanently ban users who violate the company’s rules.

It won’t be perfect, Musk added, “but I think we want it to really have the perception and reality that speech is as free as reasonably possible.”

After the deal was announced, the NAACP released a statement urging Musk not to allow Trump, the 45th president, back onto the platform.

“Do not allow 45 to return to the platform,” the civil rights organization said in a statement. “Do not allow Twitter to become a petri dish for hate speech or falsehoods that subvert our democracy.”

As both candidate and president, Trump made Twitter a powerful megaphone for speaking directly to the public, often using incendiary and divisive language on hot-button issues. He was permanently banned from the service in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.

Advertisers, currently Twitter’s main customers, have also pushed for the stronger content rules Musk has criticized. Keeping them happy requires moderation limiting hate speech so that brands aren’t trying to promote their products next to “calls for genocide,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia.

“If Musk either fires or drives away the team at Twitter that’s committed to keeping it clean and making it less hate-filled, he’ll see an immediate drop in user activity,” said Vaidhyanathan. “I think he’s going to find pretty fast that inviting the bigots back in is bad for business.”

Some users said Monday that they were planning to quit the platform if Musk took it over. To which he responded on Twitter: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”

Musk has also run into trouble with federal officials as a result of his own tweets, some of which he’s used to taunting regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In one August 2018 tweet, for instance, Musk asserted that he had the funding to take Tesla private for $420 a share, although a court has ruled that it wasn’t true. That led to an SEC investigation that Musk is still fighting. More recently, Musk appeared to have violated SEC rules that required him to disclose that he’d acquired a 5% stake in Twitter; instead, he waited until he had more than 9%. Experts say these issues aren’t likely to affect his Twitter acquisition.

While Twitter’s user base of more than 200 million remains much smaller than those of rivals such as Facebook and TikTok, the service is popular with celebrities, world leaders, journalists, and intellectuals. Musk himself is a prolific tweeter with a following that rivals several pop stars in the ranks of the most popular accounts.

Last week, he said in SEC documents that the money would come from Morgan Stanley and other banks, some of it secured by his huge stake in Tesla, the electric-vehicle company he runs.

Musk has a fortune of nearly $268 billion, much of which is tied up in Tesla stock and SpaceX, his privately held space company. It’s unclear how much cash Musk holds.

Musk began making his fortune in 1999 when he sold Zip2, an online mapping, and business directory, to Compaq for $307 million. He used his share to create what would become PayPal, an internet service that bypassed banks and allowed consumers to pay businesses directly. It was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.

That same year, Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, after finding that cost constraint were limiting NASA’s interplanetary travel. The company eventually developed cost-effective reusable rockets.

In 2004, Musk was courted to invest in Tesla, then a startup trying to build an electric car. Eventually, he became CEO and led the company to astronomical success as the world’s most valuable automaker and largest seller of electric vehicles.

Musk’s pledge to make Twitter a haven for free speech could dim the appeal of Donald Trump’s troubled Truth Social app, which the former president has touted as a competitor to Twitter that would cater to conservatives. Truth Social is part of Trump’s new media company, which has agreed to be taken public by Digital World Acquisition Corp. Shares of DWAC dropped 16.2% Monday and are down 46% since Musk revealed his stake in Twitter.

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