scorecardElon Musk's 'free speech' Twitter crusade could inflame its hate and disinformation problem, experts warn
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Elon Musk's 'free speech' Twitter crusade could inflame its hate and disinformation problem, experts warn

Connor Perrett,Katie Canales,Urooba Jamal   

Elon Musk's 'free speech' Twitter crusade could inflame its hate and disinformation problem, experts warn
Tech4 min read
  • Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk this week reached a deal to acquire Twitter.
  • Musk has been vocal about wanting to bring greater free speech to the platform.

The internet is still reeling from Elon Musk's staggering $44 billion agreement to buy Twitter Monday.

Among the major questions facing the platform is whether Twitter's new owner will change how harmful content, like hate speech and disinformation, is treated on the site.

The platform is one of many online spaces thrust into a culture war in recent years over how tech companies police what users post. Conservative politicians and influencers have specifically crusaded against Big Tech, arguing the companies have squashed their freedom of speech by flagging or deleting posts that break their rules for things like misinformation or suspending accounts promoting extremism.

Musk has often echoed a similar sentiment, and experts told Insider while there are few concrete details concerning his plans for content moderation, his outspoken stance in favor of loosening content moderation has potentially given clues on what's in store for the company.

"Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post and largely left it alone," Ari Lightman — professor of digital media at Carnegie Mellon and social media expert — told Insider. With Musk, "we have a billionaire buying an information source and wants to be very hands-on."

Musk has been vocal about wanting to loosen content moderation

Musk — a self-described "free speech absolutist" — has been vocal about rolling back Twitter's policies on harmful content, a concern among many that employees have had about the Tesla CEO's takeover.

Human rights groups from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch have also leveled concern about Musk's ownership of the platform, fearful that any changes to such policies may see a proliferation of hate speech.

Javier Pallero, the policy director at the international digital rights group Access Now, told Insider he had numerous concerns about Musk's forthcoming takeover of Twitter.

If Twitter took a more hands off approach to content moderation, Pallero said accounts that upload explicit or divisive content such as pornography could easily be amplified to users without anything to differentiate it from other posts.

"It would be practically impossible to have a platform that allows everything that is legal without any kind of intervention," Pallero said.

There is also the issue of fringe content, such as hate speech, that is not explicitly illegal, but is still harmful. Lax content moderation would mean this content could become more prevalent, according to Pallero.

"There's no way you can have a viable platform for freedom of expression if you don't put certain limits," Pallero told Insider. "One thing that happens when these kinds of behaviors are enabled at scale is that certain groups feel excluded from a platform like that — think of women, people of color, think of populations that have been historically marginalized."

Twitter's policies concerning hate speech and other harassment on the platform have been a piecemeal operation over the years, Thomas Davidson, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University and an expert on hate speech on social media, told Insider. But if those begin to unravel it could present a larger problem.

"I think the big concern would be if we see that the platform starts rolling back some of its policies," Davidson said.

Musk's takeover could also potentially pave the way for the billionaire being able to get away with posts that violate those policies, Davidson said. Musk's tweets haven't necessarily contained hate speech, but he has a history of making divisive statements, spreading misinformation and getting into conflicts with other users.

A Musk-owned Twitter could also mark the return of former US President Donald Trump and others banned from the platform for inciting hatred, Davidson said, though Trump has sworn he intends to avoid Twitter.

Musk's intentions aren't clear, but they could change who feels welcome on Twitter

It remains unclear what changes, if any, Musk will make in terms of unbanning accounts or shutting down dissent from those critical of him. Shortly before news of his Twitter acquisition broke Monday, Musk tweeted "I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means."

Musk has been similarly vague about his other plans for the platform, which include proposals to open up access to the platform's algorithms in an ostensible move towards increased transparency.

If Musk does find a way to make the algorithm open source and available to researchers, Davidson said that this may work in favor of countering extremist speech and finding how it spreads. It may also improve how the company tracks false positives, such as African American Vernacular English being misclassified as hate speech.

It's also possible that Musk may also turn to crowdsourcing for answers and ask the platform's millions of users what they'd like to see implemented policy-wise, Lightman said. Musk has repeatedly used Twitter polls to ask users about changes such as a potential edit button for tweets or to drum up support.

Musk's comments about wanting to "authenticate all real humans" on the platform also concerned Pallero, as such a policy could pose issues for individuals who choose to use Twitter anonymously because of safety concerns.

"Think of people who have concerns about their physical safety, people who want to engage in communication with people around certain interests that they want to keep private, like gender identity or political affiliations," Pallero said.

Twitter also doesn't exist in a vacuum, Pallero added, and what happens on social media has real world consequences — particularly in the context of disinformation. Moderating disinformation requires precision and very careful interventions, he said, and is not something that can be solved with simple algorithmic tweaks.

"When you try to just try to fix it with some adjustment to the algorithm or taking a different approach to content moderation — it's just not gonna happen," Pallero said. "It's not gonna be fixed. It's a more complex thing that requires a different approach."