Elon Musk offered to buy Twitter for $43 billion on April 14, in what he claimed was a move that would allow him to change the platform to promote more “free speech.”
The world’s richest man calls himself a “free speech absolutist” and has criticized Twitter’s increasing usage of content moderation.
“I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy,” Musk said in an SEC filing disclosed Thursday. “However, since making my investment I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”
But many on the frontlines of the fight for democratic spaces online have questioned whether Musk’s move – if it is indeed serious, and if he can raise the required cash, and if the offer is accepted by the Twitter board – would undermine, rather than bolster, democracy. Employees of the platform and other experts have also spoken publicly about their fears that Musk may try to erode Twitter’s recent moves to protect marginalized users and tackle harassment and misinformation.
Since the explosion of social media usage more than a decade ago, researchers and technologists have forged an understanding of the ways that the design of social media sites has an impact on civic discourse and, ultimately, democratic processes. One of their key findings: sites that privilege free speech above all else tend to result in spaces where civic discourse is drowned out by harassment, restricting participation to a privileged few.
That finding has informed much of Twitter’s recent work. Among its current stated priorities are pledges to facilitate “safe, inclusive, and authentic conversations,” and to “minimize the distribution and reach of harmful or misleading information, especially when its intent is to disrupt a civic process or cause offline harm.”
A Twitter employee on the health team, which focuses on keeping Twitter a safe, user-friendly space, agreed to speak with TIME on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. “In a way, [Musk’s] goals are aligned with ours in that we are certainly interested in protecting democracy. But the idea of bringing more free speech to the platform exposes his naiveté with respect to the nuts and bolts of content moderation,” the person told TIME a few hours after Musk’s offer was made public. “If you look historically, there have been a lot of platforms founded on this free speech principle, but the reality is that either it becomes a cesspool that people don’t want to use, or they realize that there is actually the need for some level of moderation.”
It is unclear what specific changes Musk seeks to make to the platform beyond a popular pledge to introduce an edit button to the site, and the desire to make Twitter’s algorithm more transparent. But some employees have spoken out about their fears that Musk would undermine the company’s commitments to ending targeted harassment and facilitating what it calls “conversational health.”
“From a health perspective, there’s a lot of data scientists and policy researchers at Twitter who all have deep expertise in grounding policies in trying to create this environment where inclusive conversations can be had,” the Twitter employee on the health team said. “Musk doesn’t have the background in doing this kind of work, but believes he has the solution… Health is seen internally as a big priority. If Musk were to gain control, there’s the sense that this health work would be deprioritized.”
Other experts in the field have criticized Musk’s apparent desire to roll back Twitter’s content moderation. “Effective moderation is not inherently in conflict with free speech,” said Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s former head of civic integrity, in a tweet on Thursday. “It is required for people to feel free to speak. Anyone who doesn’t get this has a high school stoner level grasp of societal issues and has never spent [five minutes] working on trust & safety.”
“Musk has implied that he wants Twitter to allow more of what might be considered harassment on the platform,” Tracy Chou, the founder of Block Party, a third-party app for muting harassment on Twitter, said in a statement to TIME on Thursday. “No matter what free speech advocates declare, some moderation is always going to be necessary or users leave. The question is where the platform draws the line at what it wants to enforce.”
Musk does not seem to be proposing anything radically new – rather, a return to an earlier, less-regulated Twitter. Before the dying months of the Trump era, Twitter was a platform that regularly cast itself as free speech absolutist. For years, former CEO Jack Dorsey pushed back against calls to take stricter action against the rise of misinformation, harassment and conspiracy theories on his site by saying he was committed to freedom of expression.
But as Trump’s presidency tested the limits of social media platforms’ ability to tolerate unfettered speech, especially by those to whom it gives the largest megaphones, Twitter came increasingly to rely on content moderation – deleting tweets and accounts that violate its rules – along with more subtle tweaks to the site’s design that are intended to bolster the health of public conversation and the spread of reliable information.
That pivot to a more interventionist approach was encapsulated by Twitter’s eventual decision, on Jan. 6, 2021, to permanently ban Trump from the platform for trying to undemocratically overturn the results of the 2020 election. (Some onlookers wonder whether Musk would seek to reverse Trump’s ban. In a live TED interview on April 14, Musk said he would generally prefer Twitter prioritize “time outs rather than permanent bans.”)
Today, Twitter’s employee base is largely liberal, and many have spoken out publicly – via tweet – against Musk’s recent attempts to influence the company’s approach to content. Rumman Chowdhury, Twitter’s head of responsible machine learning, said in a tweet that she had already observed a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Twitter employees after Musk’s public pronouncements. “Twitter has a beautiful culture of hilarious constructive criticism, and I saw that go silent because of his minions attacking employees,” she wrote. (She subsequently muted her notifications on the thread “because the trolls have descended.”)
Others engaged in the time-honored Twitter tradition of sh-tposting. “Dudes will try to buy companies instead of going to therapy,” said Amro Mousa, another engineering manager at Twitter, on Thursday, in a tweet that was retweeted by several of his colleagues.
Many are still holding out hope that CEO Parag Agrawal and the Twitter board will reject Musk’s offer to buy the company, which some financial analysts have suggested undervalues it. Another employee, who also spoke with TIME on the condition of anonymity, said: “I cannot wait for Twitter to say no.”
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