(AP) Coming up with $44 billion to buy Twitter was the easy part for Elon Musk.
Next comes the real challenge for the world’s richest person: fulfilling his promise to make Twitter “better than ever’’ as a lightly regulated haven for free speech.
His vision for improving the 16-year-old company leans heavily on a pledge to make speech “as free as reasonably possible’’ on the platform — a commitment that’s been celebrated on the political right and among followers of former President Donald Trump, whose account last year was permanently banned. For others who worry that Musk will give free rein to agitators who spew hate, lies and other harmful content, making the platform too toxic for advertisers and average users, Musk has offered few assurances.
“The extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all,’’ he tweeted on Tuesday
Many of Musk’s proposed changes reflect his own experience as a high-profile and outspoken Twitter user with more than 85 million followers and a swarm of pesky impersonator accounts that use his name and photo to promote cryptocurrency schemes. The statement announcing his acquisition of Twitter on Monday highlighted the need to defeat “spam bots’’ that mimic real users.
But what about Twitter’s more than 200 million other users who aren’t getting banned or flooded with spam? There’s still a lot of uncertainty about whether his ideas are technologically feasible and whether these changes would benefit most regular users, or serve some other purpose.
“He’s made it pretty clear he’s not interested in making Twitter a profitable enterprise,’’ said Joan Donovan, who studies misinformation at Harvard University. “It’s about the power and the influence of Twitter itself and its importance in our culture.’’
Experts who have studied content moderation and researched Twitter for years have expressed doubt that Musk knows exactly what he is getting into. And some of the problems he has identified aren’t felt by most users.
“The spam bots, for him, are highly visible and somewhat personal,’’ said Donovan. “Most people don’t see a lot of these spammy accounts.’’
And for those unhappy with the company’s crackdown on hate, harassment and misinformation, there are plenty of fledgling examples of “free speech’’-focused social media platforms that have been launched in the past few years as Twitter antidotes, largely by conservatives. Many have struggled to deal with toxic content, and at least one has been cut off by its own technology providers in protest.
“This move just shows how effective (moderation features) have been to annoy those in power,’’ said Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame. “I would be worried as to how this would change Twitter’s values.’’
The fact that no other bidders emerged in public before Musk’s deal was a sign that other would-be acquirers might find Twitter too difficult to improve, said Third Bridge analyst Scott Kessler.
“This platform is pretty much the same one we’ve had over the last decade or so,’’ Kessler said. “You’ve had a lot of smart people trying to figure out what they should do, and they’ve had trouble. It’s probably going to be tough to make a lot of headway.’’
Musk received an effusive, if highly abstract, endorsement from Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, who praised Musk’s decision to take Twitter “ back from Wall Street ‘’ and tweeted that he trusts Musk’s mission to “ extend the light of consciousness ‘’ _ a reference to Dorsey’s notion that “Twitter is the closest thing we have to a global consciousness.’’
But others familiar with Twitter say they’re dismayed at Musk’s successful bid for the company.
“Twitter is going to let a man-child essentially take over their platform,’’ said Leslie Miley, a former Twitter employee who has also worked for Google and Apple. Miley, who was the only Black engineer at Twitter in a leadership position when he left the company in 2015, echoed doubts about Musk’s grasp of the platform’s complexities.
“I am not sure if Elon knows what he is getting,’’ Miley said. “He may just find that having Twitter is a lot different than wanting Twitter.’’
The more hands-off approach to content moderation that Musk envisions has many users concerned that the platform will reanimate accounts that propagated dangerous conspiracies and harassment.
By Matt O’brien
and Tom Krisher