Twitter is now owned by the world's richest man. There's a lot of speculation about what direction he will take the social media platform, but what has he actually said?
"Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," Musk said in a statement on Twitter, right after Twitter announced they had accepted Musk's offer.
He has often been critical of Twitter in the past for "failing to adhere to free speech principles". Navigating the line between a platform that protects its users by banning hate speech (and threats, etc) and one that allows more freedom of speech is tougher than Musk might imagine. Twitter and Facebook have had to navigate a US President spreading misinformation about the 2020 election, and then misinformation around COVID, for example. They chose to label tweets as misleading or false, and remove users (including Trump) who continued to break the rules of the platform.
Other social media networks that have dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to free speech have found shortly afterward that that's not as simple as it sounds. Parler, for instance, aimed to be a place where speech was completely free. It wasn't long before they had to ban people for posting pictures of their own fecal matter, and prevent people from having the username "CumDumpster".
Platforms also have to adhere to hate speech and online protection rules of the countries in which they operate, such as the proposed online safety bill in the UK. Unusually, Amnesty International has also weighed in on the Twitter takeover, putting pressure on Musk to continue enforcement of anti-discrimination rules.
"Regardless of ownership, Twitter has a responsibility to protect human rights, including the rights to live free from discrimination and violence and to freedom of expression and opinion – a responsibility that they already too often fail," Amnesty International USA said in a statement.
"We are concerned with any steps that Twitter might take to erode enforcement of the policies and mechanisms designed to protect users. The last thing we need is a Twitter that willfully turns a blind eye to violent and abusive speech against users, particularly those most disproportionately impacted, including women, non-binary persons, and others.”
Musk has said that he wants to create a platform that is "maximally trusted and broadly inclusive", which would presumably involve protecting vulnerable groups on the platform in some way.
Like everyone with a backlog of terrible tweets, Elon Musk is very excited about the prospect of an edit button.
Several other social websites have a version of the edit button – including Facebook, Reddit, and Wikipedia – which work with varying degrees of success. However, some are worried about the possibility of the edit button on the website, with a classic and often-cited example of "what if someone tweets 'retweet if you like puppies' or any other tweet to gain retweets, before editing it to read 'retweet if you loooooove Hitler'" or a similarly offensive message.
There's also the nightmare for news sites that embed tweets, not knowing whether the content of those tweets will be changed. It's possible that Twitter could go with a "show edit history" button, as is used on Facebook and Reddit. Not everyone is on board, but with other social media sites making it work, there's no real reason why Musk can't make it work on Twitter.
Musk mentioned in his statement that he wanted to defeat "the spam bots" and authenticate "all humans".
Requiring people to show ID in order to open an account has been proposed a lot over the years, and the same problems are always highlighted: some people remain anonymous to protect themselves – or just from employers seeing their terrible, non-professional tweets.
Proponents of the idea believe it will reduce online abuse if people are writing under their own names. Critics point out that people frequently write abuse under their own names on Twitter and Facebook already – famously, Musk called a rescue worker a "pedo guy" back in 2018. Whether he is talking of requiring ID, or just authenticating whether people are human or not more thoroughly as a way of removing spam bots, remains to be seen.
Musk has gone on record as saying that his purchase of Twitter is "not a way to make money", adding "I don't care about the economics at all".
In the past, he has been critical of Twitter's main revenue in the past: advertisements.
“No ads," he wrote in a now-deleted tweet. "The power of corporations to dictate policy is greatly enhanced if Twitter depends on advertising money to survive.”
The company makes the vast majority of its income through advertising. In Q4 2021, $1.41 billion out of its $1.57 billion revenue was made in this way. Musk may opt for a subscription model, as suggested by his deleted tweets, including giving subscribers a blue checkmark and removing ads from their feeds.
"I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it."
Replacing all that ad money with a paid model – not the main earner of any social media platform – would be a tough one. Let's hope he was serious when he said he doesn't care about money.