Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter could make its misinformation problems worse

Elon Musk (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

By Anjana Susarla
Michigan State University

Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, acquired Twitter in a $44 billion
deal on April 25, 2022, 11 days after announcing his bid for the company.
Twitter announced that the public company will become privately held after the
acquisition is complete.

Some observers were skeptical that the deal will ultimately go through but
as of this writing Musk’s bid appeared to be on track. In a filing with the
Securities and Exchange Commission for his initial bid for the company, Musk
stated, “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.”

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As a researcher of social media platforms, I find that Musk’s ownership of
Twitter and his stated reasons for buying the company raise important issues.
Those issues stem from the nature of the social media platform and what sets it
apart from others.

Twitter occupies a unique niche. Its short chunks of text and threading
foster real-time conversations among thousands of people, which makes it
popular with celebrities, media personalities and politicians alike.

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Social media analysts talk about the half-life of content on a platform,
meaning the time it takes for a piece of content to reach 50% of its total
lifetime engagement, usually measured in number of views or popularity based
metrics. The average half life of a tweet is about 20 minutes, compared to five
hours for Facebook posts, 20 hours for Instagram posts, 24 hours for LinkedIn
posts and 20 days for YouTube videos. The much shorter half life illustrates
the central role Twitter has come to occupy in driving real-time conversations
as events unfold.

Twitter’s ability to shape real-time discourse, as well as the ease with
which data, including geo-tagged data, can be gathered from Twitter has made it
a gold mine for researchers to analyze a variety of societal phenomena, ranging
from public health to politics. Twitter data has been used to predict
asthma-related emergency department visits, measure public epidemic awareness,
and model wildfire smoke dispersion.

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Tweets that are part of a conversation are shown in chronological order,
and, even though much of a tweet’s engagement is frontloaded, the Twitter
archive provides instant and complete access to every public Tweet. This
positions Twitter as a historical chronicler of record and a de facto fact

A crucial issue is how Musk’s ownership of Twitter, and private control of
social media platforms generally, affect the broader public well-being. In a
series of deleted tweets, Musk made several suggestions about how to change
Twitter, including adding an edit button for tweets and granting automatic
verification marks to premium users.

There is no experimental evidence about how an edit button would change
information transmission on Twitter. However, it’s possible to extrapolate from
previous research that analyzed deleted tweets.

There are numerous ways to retrieve deleted tweets, which allows researchers
to study them. While some studies show significant personality differences
between users who delete their tweets and those who don’t, these findings
suggest that deleting tweets is a way for people to manage their online

Analyzing deleting behavior can also yield valuable clues about online
credibility and disinformation. Similarly, if Twitter adds an edit button,
analyzing the patterns of editing behavior could provide insights into Twitter
users’ motivations and how they present themselves.

Studies of bot-generated activity on Twitter have concluded that nearly half
of accounts tweeting about COVID-19 are likely bots. Given partisanship and
political polarization in online spaces, allowing users – whether they are
automated bots or actual people – the option to edit their tweets could become
another weapon in the disinformation arsenal used by bots and propagandists.
Editing tweets could allow users to selectively distort what they said, or deny
making inflammatory remarks, which could complicate efforts to trace misinformation.

Musk has also indicated his intention to combat twitter bots, or automated
accounts that post rapidly and repeatedly in the guise of people. He has called
for authenticating users as real human beings.

Given challenges such as doxxing and other malicious personal harms online,
it’s important for user authentication methods to preserve privacy. This is
particularly important for activists, dissidents and whistleblowers who face
threats for their online activities. Mechanisms such as decentralized protocols
can enable authentication without sacrificing anonymity.

To understand Musk’s motivations and what lies next for social media
platforms such as Twitter, it’s important to consider the gargantuan – and opaque
– online advertising ecosystem involving multiple technologies wielded by ad
networks, social media companies and publishers. Advertising is the primary
revenue source for Twitter.

Musk’s vision is to generate revenue for Twitter from subscriptions rather
than advertising. Without having to worry about attracting and retaining
advertisers, Twitter would have less pressure to focus on content moderation.
This could make Twitter a sort of freewheeling opinion site for paying
subscribers. In contrast, until now Twitter has been aggressive in using
content moderation in its attempts to address disinformation.

Musk’s description of a platform free from content moderation issues is
troubling in light of the algorithmic harms caused by social media platforms. Research
has shown a host of these harms, such as algorithms that assign gender to
users, potential inaccuracies and biases in algorithms used to glean
information from these platforms, and the impact on those looking for health
information online.

Testimony by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and recent regulatory
efforts such as the online safety bill unveiled in the U.K. show there is broad
public concern about the role played by technology platforms in shaping popular
discourse and public opinion. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter highlights a whole
host of regulatory concerns.

Because of Musk’s other businesses, Twitter’s ability to influence public
opinion in the sensitive areas of aviation and the automobile industry
automatically creates a conflict of interest, not to mention affecting the
disclosure of material information necessary for shareholders. Musk has already
been accused of delaying disclosure of his ownership stake in Twitter.

Twitter’s own algorithmic bias bounty challenge concluded that there needs
to be a community-led approach to build better algorithms. A very creative
exercise developed by the MIT Media Lab asks middle schoolers to re-imagine the
YouTube platform with ethics in mind. Perhaps it’s time to ask Musk to do the
same with Twitter.

This article was distributed by the Associated Press and is republished
from The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis
and commentary from academic experts.