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Opinion: Elon Musk, Twitter, and free speech

What Musk’s purchase could mean for the potential resurgence of an ex-president, and its other consequences
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PHOTOS VIA TWITTER
PHOTOS VIA TWITTER

Last month, Elon Musk bought the social media network, Twitter, for $44 billion — a highly contentious transaction considering Elon Musk’s goal to transform Twitter by making it “politically neutral.” However, given Musk’s plans to allow for more free speech, the social media platform will undoubtedly be anything but politically neutral after the transaction.

Online personas, real-life consequences

Devin Nunes — CEO of Trump Media and Technology Group — stated in an appearance on Fox Business Network that Donald Trump “encouraged Elon Musk to buy [Twitter], because someone has to take on these tech tyrants.” Evidently, Nunes is suggesting a common belief among conservatives that social media platforms censor them. Despite Nunes’ statement, Musk has denied the claim that Donald Trump encouraged him to buy Twitter. 

Although Trump has stated that he will not return to Twitter and will remain exclusively on Truth Social, a social media platform of which Trump is the founder, I personally believe that Musk’s central goal will result in the resurgence of Donald Trump’s social media presence, as well as that of other volatile personas. 

There is a history of chaos being invoked by the controversial — and frequently misinformed — information spread by such personas on social media. As we have seen throughout the pandemic, many Asian people encountered racially motivated harassment because of Trump referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus.” 

Joan Donovan, who studies misinformation at Harvard University, noted that Elon Musks’ plans to make Twitter politically neutral could result in “hundreds of thousands of [banned Twitter users]” returning to the platform. With this stage set, how will Musk protect individuals who suffer from the dangerous influence that online personas like Trump’s have on their supporters?  

Clearly, making Twitter politically neutral may have many not-so-centrist impacts on the safety of some users. 

Polarization, and where Twitter fits in

According to Zeynep Tufekci — a sociologist who specializes in social media in society — social media is “one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.” 

Social media algorithms are designed to suggest more provocative content in order to keep users engaged. Resultantly, users are often pushed towards extremist content. 

In 2019, Matheus Dominiguez — a 16-year-old kid living in Brazil — was on YouTube trying to learn how to play the guitar. After searching through many guitar teachers’ channels, he found Nando Moura — a man who had not only gained a following for his helpful guitar teachings, but also for his far-right political discussions discrediting feminism and mainstream politicans. Intrigued by the far-right politics of Moura’s videos, Dominiguez became more involved with Brazil’s far-right community. And Dominiguez is but one example of how right-wing Brazilian YouTube stars have pushed the youth of Brazil into right-wing beliefs.

With the vast expanse of digital content found on social media, it’s no surprise that it has become prevalent in modern society. Dominiguez is just one example of the plethora of impressionable individuals all around the world who are susceptible to the ideologies they encounter on social media. 

With this in mind, while Twitter and other social media platforms provide a space for individuals to voice their opinions, those with the power to provide these platforms, including Elon Musk, should set the necessary limits to ensure that other people’s freedoms — such as the freedom to feel safe or to not be harassed  — are safeguarded. 

The dangers of authentication

In addition to making Twitter politically neutral, Musk is also considering pushing for the improvement of authentication devices — that is, he plans to increase two-factor authentication to ensure the complete elimination of spam bots. 

Many people tend to see fake accounts as a political tool. For example, in the 2016 US presidential election, some believed that Russian spam bots were spreading misinformation and pro-Trump propoganda to increase Donald Trump’s chance of winning the election.

While Twitter does not currently allow such bot activity, bots can stay on the platform if they indicate that they are a fake account — a measure not bold enough for Musk. Once his acquisition transaction is complete, Musk plans to rid the social media platform of all spam accounts. However, what Musk fails to take into account is that fake accounts are made for more than anonymous trolling and stalking your ex; sometimes a fake account is necessary to protect one’s identity.

For example, Wael Ghonim — an Egyptian citizen and resident outraged at the corruption in Egypt — initiated a nonconformist political discussion about Egypt through an anonymous Facebook page. The anonymity that the social media platform afforded him allowed him to avoid retaliation from the Egyptian government. Evidently, if Ghonim were to be forced to link his name to his account, he would be jeopardizing his safety. In this sense, Musk’s plans not only compromise peoples’ freedoms but, equally, have a narrow scope.

Transparency’s indirect link to misinformation

Moreover, Musk has stated that he wishes to make Twitter more open-source by making Twitter’s algorithm publicly accessible. As indicated in multiple interviews, Musk’s primary motivation is to ensure that all tweets are treated equally. Specifically, Musk wishes to address the fact that certain tweets are “mysteriously promoted or denoted with no insight into what’s going on.” 

During a TED conference in early April of this year, Musk suggested posting Twitter code on GitHub — an open source developer website — in an effort to make the social media platform more transparent. 

However, there are notable consequences to excessive transparency. According to Nick Diakopoulos, a computer scientist at Northwestern University, too much online transparency can make it easier for hackers to manipulate the system to maximize the exposure of their tweets — much like what happened in the 2016 US presidential election. 

In this sense, one may wonder what affordances are accepted when transparency is incorporated into social media design. In other words, where do we draw the line between democratizing the internet and limiting the circulation of dangerous online rhetoric? In my opinion, any possibility for the spread of misinformation — particularly because of its impacts on individuals’ lives — must be avoided at all costs. 

All in all, while political neutrality should be the goal of any large online platform, certain limits need to be considered. After all, the past has shown us that the gap between the online world and real life is dangerously thin.

Alex Levesque is a fourth-year sociology major at University College.