Wednesday, Jul 06, 2022

A ‘Free’ Twitter Post Musk?

The world’s richest man has won Twitter in a $44 billion deal. But the question is can he really win over twitter? Can he really make the platform decentralized?

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Well, he did it. Ending weeks of speculation, Elon Musk finally has taken over Twitter in a cash deal at $54.20 per share, valued at around $44 billion. The game of footsie between Musk and Twitter which began on April 4 when the Tesla CEO bought a 9.2 per cent stake in Twitter as the largest shareholder, finally saw an end. Since then, the billionaire had been taking major steps towards buying the company.

Now, when the deal is sealed, everyone’s wondering what will change in Twitter considering Musk is a libertarian and self-described “free speech absolutist,” who has made it clear that he supports more unbridled expression on Twitter.

In a statement announcing the deal, Musk said, “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.” But does that mean once he gains control of Twitter, he will welcome back extremists banned for spreading hate, violence, and lies in recent years?

Experts aren't sure that Musk is ready to turn back on the spigot full blast, but they are concerned that a platform already brimming with misinformation and harassment could get even worse or just revert back to a previous version of Twitter, where oversight was minimal and harassment was commonplace.

While Musk has been a proven entrepreneur by leading tech businesses with Tesla and SpaceX, there is more than just tech that seems to be driving his choice for the takeover of Twitter. Musk has long presented himself as a proponent of free speech and views himself as a libertarian. He recently tweeted that a completely unbiased social media platform is one in which the most extreme 10 per cent on the left and right are equally unhappy. He has also suggested that he will ensure that Twitter incorporates an edit button, allowing users to edit their tweets, and, more importantly, will also wage war on spambots, so-called automated Twitter accounts controlled by bot software and programmed to replicate tasks of authentic Twitter users. The objective of these bots is to tweet and retweet content for a particular goal and critics have long argued that they can be used to influence elections and propagate political ideologies. 

“If Musk were to take Twitter private and solve these issues, he would inevitably be making Twitter a much more balanced and effective platform. No matter your views on Donald Trump, it is quite disconcerting that the Twitter board/management decided to kick him off Twitter but has no such qualms in allowing the Taliban to continue using Twitter. If the inherent biases of the owners of a platform seep into its functionality, that’s all the more reason for decentralization of the platform,” cautions Kunal Chowdhry, CEO, Apollo Singapore Investments, a Singapore-based venture capitalist firm.

But can a Twitter-owned wholly by Elon Musk be fully decentralized and unbiased? Musk does have controversial views, such as when he suggested at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic that “ the coronavirus pandemic is dumb” and expressed some skepticism around Covid-19 vaccines before apparently changing his mind. Would a Musk-owned Twitter allow users to freely express views that are in direct conflict with Elon’s own? Only time will tell.

Experts suggest that Musk's immediate plan is to convert Twitter into a closely held private company. Twitter has been a listed company since November 2013. Converting it into a private company will ease the compliance burden and give its management elbow room to pursue riskier and longer-term projects without being concerned about public shareholders demanding quick results. For instance, Musk is not quite happy about Twitter's reliance on advertisement revenues. “Being a closely held private company will give Twitter sufficient opportunity to pursue Musk's ideas irrespective of whether they make for immediate profits,” says Pranav Srivastava, partner, Phoenix Legal. 

While Musk in his takeover speech has said: “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 spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it”, observers wonder if extremists accounts will be welcomed back to Twitter and what will be the impact of that decision? For, loosening content moderation can lead to real-world situations.

In theory, some of Musk’s ideas may make sense and could result in less hateful content but only if he manages to balance content moderation with the impact his actions could have on his other companies.