Twitter users and investors have been trying to guess what’s ahead for the social media platform since the company agreed to a $44 billion buyout from Tesla and SpaceX CEO — and Twitter superuser — Elon Musk.
Musk has praised Twitter as an important platform for public discourse and says he plans to make it better by cracking down on bot accounts, increasing transparency around its algorithms and making it a more free speech-friendly space.
But what happens when that free speech happens to be false speech?
Emily Dreyfuss, a journalist and senior editor at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, spoke to Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams about how the change of ownership, which is subject to regulatory approval, could affect Twitter’s attempts to crack down on misinformation. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Emily Dreyfuss: He said recently, this week, that he doesn’t believe in any rules that go beyond the “law” of free speech. Now, this is a kind of confusing statement, to be honest, because the First Amendment — which is what he’s referring to — really works in the opposite way, so that the government is not allowed to curtail the speech of individuals and companies. But it doesn’t apply to a company not being allowed to curtail the free speech of its users. But we can guess or we can foresee that Musk will change the moderation policies at Twitter if he puts himself in a position in charge of the company where he is going to make those changes.
Kimberly Adams: Musk has also said that he wants to make certain things on Twitter more transparent, like making the algorithms visible or authenticating user identities. What effect do you think that would have, if any, on sort of regulating misinformation on Twitter?
Dreyfuss: In general, we really need to have way more transparency into the black boxes of these algorithms on all of the social media networks. Because the decisions that are coded into those algorithms are what amplifies outrageous content above true content. It’s what pushes salacious things into our feeds, and not the kind of “dog bites man” everyday stories that we don’t find that exciting. I question whether it would actually have any impact, though, because it may be a little bit like when you get your DNA sequenced and someone would just give you a piece of paper with a bunch of numbers that represent your genes. And you’re like, “Cool … I have no idea how to interpret this.”
Adams: Could open-sourcing Twitter’s algorithm also make that more vulnerable to bad actors who might want to spread misinformation?
Dreyfuss: Sometimes that’s an argument that the platforms make because if they did that, then bad actors would be able to game out better ways to exploit the system. I would say that, in my opinion, that is not a good reason to not make things transparent. And frankly, that’s because bad actors are already using these platforms to maximum exploitation. And they don’t need to know the code to make an inference about what it is amplifying. I don’t think it would make it that much worse. And what it would do is potentially allow much more accountability. But we would have to see, I don’t know what format it would take.
Adams: What about the people and groups who actively spread misinformation? What do you expect in terms of how Musk might handle them? Because a lot of people are worried about the folks that were banned coming back.
Dreyfuss: Well, Musk has said that he’s not in favor of bans, and that he maybe would support suspensions over bans. And I think that that’s a clear indication that, you know, he would allow Donald Trump to come back and he would unban some of the people who have been banned for spreading misinformation. You know, there’s a reason why folks in those corners of the internet believe Musk is their champion.
Adams: Twitter has been a public company since 2013. What should we be watching for as it transitions to being a private company under Elon Musk, if this deal goes through?
Dreyfuss: There’s been a contradiction at the heart of Twitter. It acts like it’s a public square, but in fact it’s not a public square, it is a company that has a bottom line and has never been that good at reaching it. But now with the terms of the financing that Musk has gotten to acquire Twitter, there’s going to be a lot more pressure on him to pay back that loan. He has even leveraged some of Tesla to get this financing. And therefore we’re going to likely see big changes to the way the platform looks, the way ads operate on the platform. And one of those changes that people are predicting is that there may need to be layoffs. Content moderation, in his mind, you know, seems to be antithetical to his idea of free speech. And so I think that it would be not off-base to assume that if there are layoffs, they would hit that team.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
One reason the way Twitter deals with misinformation is such a big deal is that, as Dreyfuss pointed out to me, Twitter plays a big role in the spread of misinformation.
In 2018, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tracked just how quickly false information spreads on the platform and found it moves faster than real news by a pretty big margin, which left the researchers “somewhere between surprised and stunned.”
For more recent information on how misinformation spreads online, Dreyfuss references the Shorenstein Center’s Media Manipulation Casebook.
The online resource includes case studies tracing the route that viral, but fake, stories take online. It also includes a handy chart explaining the various stages of media manipulation.
A big part of the process is using platforms like Twitter to influence journalists, activists, politicians and industry leaders — the kinds of people who probably spend way too much time on Twitter.