Twitter has been in the news a lot lately, but for the wrong reasons. Its stock growth has languished and the platform itself has remained largely the same since its inception in 2006. On April 14, 2022, Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, made an offer to purchase of Twitter and privatization of the public company.
In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Musk said, “I invested in Twitter because I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the world, and I believe that freedom of expression is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.
As a researcher of social media platforms, I find Musk’s potential ownership of Twitter and his reasons for buying the company raise important questions. These issues stem from the nature of the social media platform and what sets it apart from others.
What makes Twitter unique
Twitter occupies a unique niche. Its short text chunks and chat threads promote real-time conversations among thousands of people, making it popular with celebrities, media personalities, and politicians.
Social media analysts talk about the half-life of content on a platform, which is the time it takes for a piece of content to reach 50% of its total lifetime engagement, usually measured in number of views or in metrics based on popularity. The average half-life of a tweet is around 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 pivotal role Twitter now has in driving real-time conversations as events unfold.
Twitter’s ability to shape discourse in real time, as well as the ease with which data, including geotagged data, can be collected from Twitter has made it a goldmine 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 room visits, measure public awareness of the outbreak, and model wildfire smoke dispersal.
Tweets that are part of a conversation are presented in chronological orderand, while much of a tweet’s engagement is preloaded, the Twitter Archive provides instant and complete access to every public Tweet. This positions Twitter as a reference historical chronicler and a de facto fact checker.
Changes in Musk’s mind
A crucial question is how Musk’s ownership of Twitter and private control of social media platforms in general affect the broader public welfare. In a series of deleted tweets, Musk made several suggestions on how to change Twitter, including adding an edit button for tweets and granting auto-verification marks to premium users.
There is no experimental evidence on how an edit button would alter the transmission of information on Twitter. However, it is possible to extrapolate from previous research that analyzed deleted tweets.
There are many ways to recover deleted tweets, allowing researchers to study them. While some studies show significant personality differences between users who delete their tweets and those who don’t, these results suggest that deleting tweets is a way for people to manage their identity online.
Analysis of suppression behavior can also provide valuable clues about online credibility and misinformation. Similarly, if Twitter adds an edit button, analyzing 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 the partisanship and political polarization in online spaces, allowing users – whether automated bots or real people – to edit their tweets could become another weapon in the disinformation arsenal being used. by robots and propagandists. Editing tweets could allow users to selectively misrepresent what they said or deny making inflammatory remarks, which could complicate efforts to track misinformation.
Content moderation and Twitter’s revenue model
To understand Musk’s motivations and what awaits social media platforms such as Twitter, it’s important to consider the gargantuan – and opaque – online advertising ecosystem involving multiple technologies used by ad networks, social media companies and publishers. Advertising is Twitter’s main source of revenue.
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 would make Twitter a kind of freewheeling opinion site for paying subscribers. Twitter has been aggressive in using content moderation in its attempts to combat misinformation.
Musk’s description of a platform free of content moderation issues is troubling in light of the algorithmic damage done by social media platforms. Research has shown a host of these harms, such as the algorithms that assign users’ gender, potential inaccuracies and biases in the algorithms used to glean information from these platforms, and the impact on those seeking information on online health.
The testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and recent regulatory efforts such as the Online Safety Bill unveiled in the UK show that the role tech platforms play in shaping popular discourse and public opinion. public opinion is widely worrying. Musk’s potential offer on Twitter highlights a whole host of regulatory concerns.
Due to Musk’s other activities, Twitter’s ability to sway public opinion in the sensitive aviation and automotive sectors would automatically create a conflict of interest, not to mention disclosing material information needed by shareholders. Musk has previously been accused of delaying disclosure of his Twitter stake.
specific to Twitter algorithmic bias bounty challenge concluded that a community approach is needed to create better algorithms. A very creative exercise developed by the MIT Media Lab asks middle school students to reinvent the YouTube platform with ethics in mind. Maybe it’s time to ask Twitter to do the same, whoever owns and runs the business.[Over 150,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletters to understand the world. Sign up today.]