PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) — Tesla CEO Elon Musk has laid out some bold, albeit still vague, plans to turn Twitter into a place of “maximum fun” by simply buying the $44 billion social media platform and making it private.
But an age of what is at present little more than a mixture of ambiguous principles and technical details could be more complex than it suggests.
Here’s what might happen if Musk follows through on his ideas about free speech, combating spam and opening the “black box” of artificial intelligence tools that amplify social media trends.
Free Speech Town Square
Musk’s most quarrelsome—but also with an ambiguous roadmap—is to make Twitter a “politically neutral” digital city square for global discourse that allows freedom of expression as much as each country’s laws allow.
He conceded that his plans to reshape Twitter could anger the political left and often appease the right. He did not specify exactly what he would do about the permanently banned account of former President Donald Trump or other right-wing leaders whose tweets conflicted with the company’s restrictions. Against hate speech, violent threats, or harmful misinformation.
If Musk goes in that direction, it could mean reinstating not just Trump, but “many, many others removed as a result of the QAnon plots, targeted harassment of journalists and activists, and of course all accounts removed after January.” Joan Donovan, who studies misinformation at Harvard University, said. “That could potentially be hundreds of thousands of people.”
Musk has not ruled out suspending some accounts, but says such a ban should be temporary. His latest criticism centered on what he called “incredibly inappropriate” in 2020 by Twitter banning an article in the New York Post about Hunter Biden, which the company said was a mistake and was corrected within 24 hours.
open source algorithms
Musk’s long-standing interest in artificial intelligence is reflected in one of the most specific proposals he outlined in his merger announcement – the promise to “make algorithms open-source to increase trust”. It talks about systems that rank content to determine what appears in users’ feeds.
The distrust is driven in part, at least for Musk’s supporters, by traditions among American political conservatives about “shadow bans” on social media.. This is a supposed invisible feature to reduce the access of misbehaving users without disabling their accounts. There was no evidence that the Twitter platform was biased against conservatives; Studies have found the opposite when it comes to conservative media in particular.
Musk called for the underlying computer code that powers the Twitter news feed to be posted for public inspection on the programmer’s GitHub hangout. Such “code-level transparency” gives users little knowledge of how Twitter works for them without the data being processed by algorithms, said Nick Diacopoulos, a computer scientist at Northwestern University.
Diakopoulos said there is goodwill in Musk’s broader goal of helping people understand why their tweets are being promoted or demoted and whether human moderators or automated systems are making those choices. But this is not an easy task. Diakopoulos said that too much transparency about how individual tweets are categorized, for example, could make it easier for “scammers” to manipulate the system and manipulate an algorithm to get maximum exposure to their cause.
Defeat spam bots
“Spam bots” that mimic real people have been a personal annoyance for Musk, whose popularity on Twitter has inspired countless impersonator accounts that use his picture and name – often to promote crypto-related scams that look like they’re coming from the Tesla CEO.
Certainly, Twitter users, including Musk, said David Green, director of civil liberties at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “don’t want spam.” But who defines what is considered an annoying bot?
“You mean all bots like, you know, if I follow a bot on Twitter that only pulls historical photos of fruits? I choose to follow that. Is that not allowed?” he said.
There are also plenty of Twitter accounts riddled with spam, which are at least partly run by real people who run the gamut from those selling products to those promoting polarizing political content to interfere with other countries’ elections.
“Documentation of All People”
Musk has repeatedly said he wants Twitter to “validate all humans,” a vague suggestion that may be related to his desire to rid the site of spam accounts.
Intensifying regular identity checks — such as two-factor authentication or popups asking which of the six pictures shows a school bus — can discourage anyone from trying to amass an army of fake accounts.
Musk might also consider offering more people a “blue check” — the verification mark that appears on prominent Twitter accounts — such as those of Musk — to show who they say they are. Musk suggested that users could purchase the tags as part of a premium service.
But some digital rights activists worry that these actions could lead to a “real name” policy, similar to Facebook’s approach to forcing people to validate their full names and use them on their profiles. This appears to contradict Musk’s focus on free speech by silencing anonymous informants or people living under authoritarian regimes where it can be dangerous if a defector’s message is attributed to a specific person.
Musk brought up the idea of an ad-free Twitter, although it wasn’t one of the priorities outlined in the official merger announcement. The reason for this may be to cut off the main way of making money through the company, even for the richest person in the world.
Ads made up more than 92% of Twitter’s revenue in the January-March fiscal quarter. The company launched a premium subscription service last year — known as Twitter Blue — but it doesn’t seem to have made much progress in getting people to pay for it.
Musk has made it clear that he prefers a more robust subscription-based model of Twitter that gives more people an ad-free option. It would also fit in with his efforts to loosen content restrictions on Twitter – which brands largely prefer because they don’t want their ads to be surrounded by hateful and offensive tweets.
Musk has tweeted and voiced so many suggestions on Twitter that it can be difficult to know which ones to take seriously. He’s joined in the popular call for an “edit button” – which Twitter says it’s already working on – that would enable people to fix a tweet soon after it was posted. A less serious proposal from Musk suggested turning Twitter’s downtown San Francisco headquarters into a homeless shelter “since no one showed up anyway” — a comment that was seen as more of Twitter’s pandemic-era workforce search than an altruistic view of the building.
Musk did not return an email request to explain his plans.
Associated Press writer Barbara Ortutay contributed to this report.
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