Some celebrate him as the Messiah, others attest to dangerous megalomania. With the takeover of Twitter, however, Elon Musk could have gambled badly. His promise of unlimited freedom of expression could threaten precisely this.

Elon Musk is a prisoner between extremes. Brilliant visionary on the one hand, uncompromising businessman on the other. When making decisions, the tech billionaire is not driven by whether, but primarily by how. At least, that’s the impression his recent takeover of Twitter is giving. After months of back and forth that entertained his followers but probably drove investors to despair, the 51-year-old now owns one of the most influential social networks on the planet alongside the largest electric car manufacturer, a rocket company and a drilling company. The whole thing cost him 44 billion US dollars.

As is typical of Musk, he’s also brought big plans (besides a sink). He wants to rid the platform of bots, cut content moderation to a minimum, and (after an amazing exchange of blows with horror writer Stephen King) ask verified accounts to pay. With all of this, he could massively endanger freedom of expression, which he presents himself as defending.

Musk confuses moderation with manipulation

Musk had claimed not to reject any type of content moderation. He just wants to make sure that users can basically tweet whatever they want – as long as it’s legal. The “problem” with this: “In the United States, any kind of statement that is not a direct call to impending violence is legal,” according to the US magazine “The New Republic”. This means that false information – and lies – are also protected by the constitution. There’s a good reason for that. After all, the government could label otherwise critical reporting as “fake news” in order to silence opponents – just as Donald Trump has tried again and again, the “Los Angeles Times” points out. However, the First Amendment does not apply to social media anyway. As a company, Twitter has domiciliary rights, so to speak. The operators can regulate what is tweeted at their own discretion – or not.

One thing is certain: the “excessive” moderation is a thorn in the side of the new Twitter boss. If Musk has his way — and it does now — the network should largely regulate itself. In other words: minimum rules, maximum freedom of speech. But this lack of control harbors the danger “that [Twitter] could return to the more toxic, divisive place it [used to be],” quotes the news portal “Grid News” Paul Barrett of New York University (NYU). Without the very ground rules Musk sees as an intrusion on free speech, he invites trolls to a never-ending open house. Musk faces a well-known problem with Twitter: the often difficult separation of opinion and facts. Corona was one of the best examples of this. Even at the peak of the pandemic, social media was often not about verifiable arguments, but about who screamed the loudest.

The new owner himself recently proved what it looks like when untested false information becomes public in Musk’s network, when Musk posted a crude conspiracy theory about the assassination of the husband of US top politician Nancy Pelosi.

How social media can be regulated has been discussed for a long time in the USA and the EU. However, the draft laws are not about banning users from speaking up, but about transparency, accountability, and preventing hate speech. Since it became known that Musk was taking the helm, the N-word has been used 13 times more often, according to the news portal “Bloomberg”.

The Tale of the Evil Bots

Nevertheless, Musk is apparently firmly convinced that free exchange of views on Twitter is currently not possible. From his point of view, it is not least bots (fake user profiles) that are responsible for the systematic suppression of certain (mainly conservative) political views. Probably also in order to lower the purchase price, Musk had repeatedly claimed that around a fifth of all Twitter accounts were fake.

Filippo Menczer from Indiana University and his team have researched exactly these allegations, as the IT scientist reports in an article for the Australian news network “Conversation”. The experiments had shown, among other things, “that Republican users tend to confuse conservative bots with humans, while Democratic users tend to confuse conservative human users with bots”. For their study, Menczer and his team created Twitter bots themselves, each following conservative and liberal news accounts. The surprise: The Twitter algorithm preferred conservative content and accounts.

Musk’s concerns about conservative voices being suppressed on Twitter are therefore unfounded, says Menczer. A study by the Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU also found no evidence that the platform favors liberal opinions. On the contrary – the authors themselves even described the claim as disinformation.

The results of a 2018 MIT study showed that fake news spreads up to six times faster on Twitter than facts. It is also up to 70 percent more likely that disinformation will be retweeted. But contrary to Muk’s view, it is not the bots that are responsible. “Instead, fake news spreads faster on Twitter because people retweet inaccurate news,” the study authors said.

Musk scares advertisers

Musk’s intentions may be noble. The 51-year-old is first and foremost an entrepreneur. “We’ve gotta pay the bills somehow!” Musk replied to a tweet from horror author Stephen King on Monday. He had threatened to delete his account if he had to pay for his “blue tick” in the future. According to the British “Guardian”, there were around 400,000 verified accounts in 2021 – less than one percent of the total user base. If each of them paid the eight dollars per month Musk suggested, Twitter would generate the equivalent of 39 million euros in additional revenue. A massive cut for comparatively little yield. Because it is precisely the verified accounts that contribute significantly to the transparency of the platform.

Musk hits a sore point – Twitter must finally become profitable. Last year, the platform generated five billion US dollars in sales – but not a penny in profit. On the contrary. Twitter recorded a loss of around 221 million dollars, in 2020 it was even 1.1 billion dollars. In only two of the 16 years of the company’s history, the microblogging service was even in the black (2018 and 2019). As the news portal “Grid” reports, Musk also owed the company $ 13 billion with the takeover – the estimated interest figures amounted to around $ 1 billion per year.

“Twitter can’t just rely on advertisers,” Musk continued in his tweet on Monday. He’s right about that too. Last year, 92 percent of sales came from advertising. However, advertisers see Musk as more of a bugbear than a savior. As The New York Times reports, five executives recently resigned after one of the world’s largest advertising companies, IPG, officially recommended that its clients stop advertising on Twitter for the time being. IPG’s clients include giants like American Express, Coca-Cola and Walmart. The companies themselves, according to Katie Klumper, chief executive of Black Glass, a consulting firm owned by IPG, are closely monitoring the Musk “drama” — most would soon heed IPG’s advice. Tesla competitor General Motors stopped all campaigns on Twitter shortly after Musk’s takeover. On Tuesday, more than 40 civil rights groups also released a joint letter urging companies to stop advertising on Twitter. “If Elon Musk implements even a fraction of what he has already promised, then Twitter cannot and will not be a safe platform for brands,” the signatories said.

Quellen: “The Conversation”; “Grid News”; “New York Times”; “Politico”; “Los Angeles Times”