Twitter, the social media platform that has been publicly traded since 2013, is expected to come under private ownership once again. This news comes with Elon Musk’s $44 billion offer to acquire the platform just a few weeks ago. Musk has been quoted praising the platform’s “tremendous potential” that he hopes to unlock through the changes he intends on implementing (BBC, 2022). Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, and the changes he intends to make on the social media platform, will have a lasting effect on the way in which misinformation and disinformation circulate on the app.
In the brief history of social media, substantial changes to the way in which the apps or parent companies function have frequently led to unexpected consequences, regardless of the intentions behind the changes. For example, in 2012, when Mark Zuckerberg was in the process of taking Facebook public, he wrote to investors that he hoped to “rewire the way people spread and consume information” (The Atlantic, 2022). While his intentions were seemingly positive, this refabrication of the way society exchanges information led to various consequences such as increased political polarization, fragmentation of the public, and a reduction in the trust of American institutions (The Atlantic, 2022).
Although potentially well intentioned, social media allocated more power to “trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens” (The Atlantic, 2022). Zuckerberg was successful in changing the world with social media, but perhaps even he was unaware of just how influential it would become.
Twitter, too, has had its fair share of controversial influence on society. Twitter has played an instrumental role in the fabrication of conspiracies within the United States. Although free speech is not guaranteed on the current platform and users are subject to being banned, false information still circulates on the app. Far too often, ideas spread on Twitter and other platforms have resulted in uproar and violent actions such as the Pizzagate incident or the January 6th insurrection. However, under its current framework, Twitter is permitted to evaluate and ban users for misconduct, and even went so far as to ban Donald Trump from the platform while he was President of the United States.
After issuing his offer to acquire Twitter, Musk discussed the changes he hopes to make to the platform. Among these changes, Musk hopes to eliminate bot accounts and advertisements. Additionally, he wants to ensure absolute freedom of speech, and is considering implementing a subscription fee for the social network (Time, 2022).
It is these changes that will have a lasting effect on the way in which misinformation and disinformation circulate on the app. As previously discussed, certain information circulated on Twitter has resulted in uproar and violence, even with the current structure of the platform. This free speech absolutism would likely increase the frequency of these incidents. Although Musk has stated that hate speech will not be tolerated, he has yet to comment on the “gray areas” (Time, 2022).
Additionally, as mentioned in Can Citizens Discern?, the very fabric of democracy is contingent on voters critiquing the government, and holding representatives accountable. Twitter has increasingly been used by the public as a news source, and Disinformation in Democracies emphasizes social media’s impact on “political decision-making and electoral outcomes,” and its ability to “exacerbate the spread of disinformation and misinformation” (Argüello et al., 2019). The societal influence that social media holds means that uninhibited free speech on platforms like Twitter could misinform voters and obstruct truth, thereby limiting the people’s ability to hold their representatives properly accountable.
Musk’s hopes to eliminate bots by requiring human authentication when creating an account could be a potential breach of users’ privacy and will put an end to the platform’s pseudonymity (Time, 2022). However, ensuring that all users’ accounts are directly linked to their government name will hold them culpable for their online presence and may reduce the spread of mis/disinformation.
Another change that Musk has expressed interest in is subscription fees. Implementing subscription fees would eliminate the need for ad revenue, and removing ads from the platform would significantly reduce the circulation of misinformation.
It is important to consider Musk’s intentions because after all, he is the one who will be steering Twitter in whatever direction it goes. It is clear that he intends to make significant changes to Twitter, but it is unclear how exactly he intends to do so. It is no secret that Musk is highly intelligent, so it is likely safe to infer that he has thought about the various contingencies that will result from his changes and possible solutions to them, but until he vocalizes these thoughts it is difficult to determine his intentions.
The transformation of Twitter under the private ownership of Elon Musk will be extraordinarily impactful on the way in which misinformation and disinformation circulates on the platform and around the world. While some of Musk’s changes may increase the prevalence of mis/disinformation on Twitter, others may have the opposite effect. Perhaps, Musk’s intentions are the greatest contributing factor to how effective, or ineffective, these changes will be.
Can Citizens Discern? Information Credibility, Political Sophistication, and the Punishment of Corruption in Brazil by Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro & Matthew Winters.
Disinformation in Democracies: Strengthening Digital Resilience in Latin America by Maria Fernanda Pérez Argüello et al.
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