In tweets and a conversation that followed his surprise bid last week to take Twitter private, billionaire Elon Musk has decried decisions to bar some users as censorship and said moderation that blunts the spread of legal but offending content goes too far. “If it’s a gray area, let the tweet exist,” Musk said Thursday.
Such comments alarm those whose experience has been that unfettered speech makes social media platforms unusable and that lightly controlled speech favors those who can direct thousands to make versions of the same point, which is then amplified by algorithms designed to maximize engagement and thereby advertising dollars.
“This is a disaster, and it is not only about Elon Musk, but he kind of puts it on steroids,” said Shoshana Zuboff, a retired Harvard Business School professor and author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” which says that the money coming from the collection of data about human behavior is the lifeblood of a new and thus far nearly unregulated era.
Zuboff argues that social media companies like Facebook and Twitter extract as much data about users as possible then attempt to maximize their time on the site because that earns them money. But platforms, she argues, are not neutral. In driving users online, they alter not only discussions but also beliefs and even physical actions, encouraging people to do what they otherwise would not, such as joining protests in the real world.
Putting so much power in the hands of one company is bad enough, but putting it in the hands of one person, as is largely the case with Facebook shareholder Mark Zuckerberg and would be the case if Twitter were owned by Musk, would be incompatible with democracy, Zuboff said.
“There are simply no checks and balances from any internal or external force,” she said in an interview. It would leave Musk, like Zuckerberg, with an amount of assembled data about people and the ability to use it to manipulate them “that cannot be compared to anything that has ever existed, and allows intervention into the integrity of individual behavior and also the integrity of collective behavior.”
“Zuckerberg sits at his celestial keyboard, and he can decide day by day, hour by hour, whether people are going to be more angry or less angry, whether publications are going to live or die,” she said.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. Musk did not answer emailed questions. Zuckerberg, at least, has a board of directors and the Securities and Exchange Commission to look after the interests of shareholders. A private Twitter owned by Musk would not be mandated to have even that.
Zuboff thinks whole new institutions must come to life in the next decade to govern information spaces. Behind the controversy over Musk offering to buy Twitter is an ongoing debate about whether technology executives already hold too much control over online speech.
If Musk takes control of Twitter, that could add pressure on American policymakers to regulate social media companies, former officials told The Washington Post.
One person holding “near monopoly control” over a social network could only increase these worries among policymakers, said Bill Baer, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“To have one individual who is an unpredictable commodity, to put it mildly, in control of such an important communications platform likely will make a lot of people nervous,” said Baer, who previously led antitrust enforcement at the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department.
In interviews, former Democratic regulators and anti-monopoly advocates said Musk offering to buy Twitter underscores the need for Congress to pass legislation governing the Internet. Tom Wheeler, the former chair of the Federal Communications Commission, said Musk is taking actions that highlight the need for the creation of a new regulator that would oversee the technology industry.
“What we need is a First Amendment-respecting process in which the government doesn’t dictate content but does cause there to be an acceptable behavioral code,” Wheeler said.
Even professionals who think that social media is a net good say that Twitter as Musk envisions it would be terrible for users and investors. The past few years have spawned any number of Twitter knockoffs catering to those who feel muzzled by the original, including Gab and Parler, but none has taken off in the mainstream.
That is not an accident, said Alicia Wanless, director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington. People want basic rules in the same way they would avoid a nightclub that turns a blind eye to casual violence.
“Musk can buy Twitter and try to take it back to some nostalgic lost Eden of the early days of the Internet, but platforms with the least community standards, like Gab, hardly rank because it isn’t a good business,” Wanless said.
Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has helped protect global rights activists from government hacking and ordinary people from domestic stalking, said she “would be concerned about the human rights and personal safety impacts of any single person having complete control over Twitter’s policies.”
She added, “I am particularly concerned about the impact of complete ownership by a person who has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not understand the realities of content moderation at scale.”
Citing Musk supporting the idea for allowing anything legal, Galperin said: “Twitter’s content moderation practices leave a lot to be desired, but they tried the policies that Musk seems to favor more than a decade ago, and it did not work.”
A pullback in moderation would disproportionately harm women, minorities and anyone out of favor with the establishment, civil rights advocates said. “Without rules of the road, we are going to be put in harm’s way,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice group Color of Change. “Our protections cannot be up to the whims of billionaires.”
Alex Stamos, the former Facebook chief security officer who called out Russian disinformation on that platform during the 2016 election, said Musk has a notion of Twitter as a public square for free expression that is divorced from the reality of many individuals and failed to acknowledge that it would give more power to the most powerful.
Without moderation, Stamos said, “anybody who expresses an opinion ends up with every form of casual insult ranging to death and rape threats. That is the baseline of the Internet. If you want people to be able to interact, you need to have basic rules.”
“When you talk about a public square, it’s a flawed analogy. In this case, the Twitter town square includes hundreds of millions of people who can interact pseudo-anonymously from hundreds of miles away. A Russian troll farm can invent hundreds of people to show up in the town square.”
“The algorithm gets to decide who gets heard,” added Claire Wardle, a Brown University professor who studies misinformation and social media moderation policies. To Wardle, Musk sounds as if he is speaking from before the 2016 election, when the extent of foreign misinformation campaigns in the country shocked users and experts alike and accelerated more sophisticated moderation efforts that even now fall well short of their goals.
“We were just so naive because we didn’t understand the ways these platforms get weaponized,” Wardle said. “The idea that we would go back to where we were is a disaster.” But it fits with the entrepreneur’s documented disdain for regulations and regulators, whether they concern labor, auto safety or the stock market, critics noted.
Some Republicans have cheered Musk on as part of their argument that Twitter, which was the first platform to ban President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, has been unfair to conservatives.
But a successful takeover might make new regulation out of Washington more likely amid a broader effort to rein in large technology companies. “Consolidating control is not the way to protect democracy and enhance free expression,” said Samir Jain, director of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “It will only exacerbate the concerns that people have over the degree to which these companies have influence over our discourse.”
If Twitter were to be taken private, its policies and decisions would become less transparent to policymakers and the general public, raising additional challenges for grappling with the role of tech companies, Baer said.
In the past year, Facebook whistleblowers have brought complaints to the SEC, alleging that the company misled investors about its efforts to address misinformation and accounts linked to rebels backed by Russia fighting in Ukraine. But such challenges would not be possible at Twitter if the platform were privately controlled.
“There would be less public disclosure, there would be less independent oversight,” Baer said. “There would not be the ability of independent directors on the board or individual shareholders to challenge or shape the behavior of Twitter, if it’s held solely by one individual.”