Here’s how Elon Musk’s control of Twitter could change moderation policies

Free speech is often a moderation headache – but it signals a shift in tone for Twitter.

When Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter was first tabled, then accepted, one of the key elements that he put front and center of his bid to change the platform was to make the site more open to free speech. Despite the recent uncertainty regarding Musk’s ultimate commitment to the deal, it’s worth having a look at how things will play out for Twitter shall the board force Musk to fulfill his obligations.

It is “the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said when the deal was announced.

The implication was that Twitter was currently not serving the purpose it’s meant to in allowing its users the right to free speech. Though Musk didn’t mention names, he may have been thinking of the banning of former US President Donald Trump, who was kicked off the site in January 2021 for inciting violence at the US Capitol through his tweets. The banning of Trump from Twitter was a significant step for social media and indicated that platforms would no longer be able to simply stand by and not take a stand when it came to politics.

That decision was controversial when it happened and has remained a thorn in the side of Twitter – and one that Musk sought to exploit throughout his short but powerful campaign to convince the public to back his attempted takeover. Shortly after the deal was announced, Musk tweeted: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter because that is what free speech means.”

Defining free speech

But the reality is that many are worried about what the future holds for Twitter, which despite having a small audience of only a few hundred million, punches far above its weight when considering the strength of conversation on the platform and its ability to affect real-world ramifications.

“As an outspoken critic of the platform, Musk has vowed to reduce content moderation, discussed the potential of open-source algorithms, and suggested the implementation of an edit button. This new-look management may breathe life into the platform,” says Insider Intelligence forecasting analyst Zach Goldner. “Yet, Musk’s takeover would likely result in a shift of the business.”

That shift isn’t only in the bottom line but in the rules of the platform and what’s allowed. Musk recently tweeted a meme that indicates that as the breadth of politics has broadened, he has found himself moving from left of center-ground to right of center-ground. Figuring out what that means in reality is more concerning. Twitter notably was not able to confirm it would continue to tackle hate speech and abuse on the platform when asked by WIRED. In the space between the old way Twitter worked and the unknown future for the platform under Musk, there’s an information vacuum that causes a moderation headache.

How to head forward

“The way forward is to decentralise Twitter and decentralise moderation: no one person should control the town square,” says Matthew Hodgson, CEO and CTO at Element. “What's needed is moderation that is distributed, with more control from the users. A decentralised system based on reputation would be more scalable and make disinformation bots less influential over time, eventually lost in their own echo chambers.”

Taking such an approach could work, reckons Hodgson, because it would remove a lot of the pressure on the platform to act as the ultimate arbiters of what is and isn’t allowed. “Moderators would not be playing God in making a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision when there is a lot of grey out there,” he says. “Instead, every server admin, every community admin, every user could make their own choice to listen to something or not, rather than being subjected to a single provider’s algorithms.”

However, that’s easier said than done – and comes with its own political headaches. For every liberal lamenting the ownership of Twitter by Musk, there are republicans who are welcoming the opportunity to once more speak their mind, free of what they see as unrequired and unfair censorship. The battles that would ensue if everyone was left to their devices would be impossible.

Social media moderation is already a high-wire task, with plenty of pitfalls if it’s done wrong. With the focus and scrutiny that comes with being owned by one of the world’s richest men, Twitter will have an almighty headache ahead.

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