It’s not surprising that over the past few months I’ve frequently been asked for my take on Elon Musk’s proposed acquisition of Twitter. After all, for the past decade I’ve had a close connection to Twitter: Bluefin, the company I co-founded in 2008, was acquired by Twitter; I went on to serve as Twitter’s Chief Media Scientist from 2013-2018; and my subsequent research at MIT has relied heavily on the analysis of Twitter data.
So what do I think about Musk’s advocacy of increased “free speech”? I think it’s problematic on several levels. First, I believe that relaxing content moderation policies will lead to predictable consequences for the safety of users, brand safety for advertisers, and legal challenges for the company. The forces that have organically shaped the platform’s policies over the years cannot simply be ignored. If Musk assumes control, in all likelihood he will find it difficult to make substantial changes to a platform on which hundreds of millions of users are locked into behaviors and expectations that were set into motion years ago.
Secondly, I find the idea that any one individual could take control of a significant social platform and unilaterally shift its policies to be deeply troubling. That this unilateral redirection is even a possibility highlights the need for developing truly democratic mechanisms for the future governance of social platforms. Unfortunately, putting such mechanisms in place now is an uphill battle because doing so is incompatible with the business model of strictly commercial platforms like Twitter.
Taking a step back from the details of content moderation policies, it’s important to keep in mind the limits of what we can expect from Twitter in the long run. The core design of the platform – as well as its business model – will continue to encourage viral posts that feed on immediate emotional responses. This is great for entertainment and starting social movements, but can also fuel the spread of disinformation and contribute to an already toxic and polarized social media environment. Regardless of a Musk takeover, I hope Twitter continues with the positive kind of efforts that it has recently introduced to read-before-you-retweet and nudges to increase the quality of conversation on the platform.
The current situation with Twitter is being closely watched because so much is at stake. For me, it’s a wake-up call and a reminder that, for the sake of preserving our increasingly fragile democracy, we must build new platforms optimized to encourage more constructive dialogue, listening, and learning. We also need new organizational structures that permit democratic governance where ownership of data, control over content moderation policies, and control of how information spreads are decentralized.
We have already begun working toward this goal with our collaborator, Cortico. Together, we have created the Local Voices Network conversation platform to combine human listening and the analytic power of AI to facilitate and analyze conversations that capture the authenticity and nuances of participants’ sentiments and concerns grounded in their personal stories. This approach is a far cry from the social media environment Musk is touting, no doubt. But I believe it demonstrates a new path for scalable communication platforms that turn down the volume of the loudest, most polarizing voices and makes space for the rest of us to listen and be heard.