Elon Musk wants to buy Twitter so he can unleash its full potential as an arena for free speech, he says — but depending on how he approaches that, researchers warn he could create an environment where misinformation thrives.
Musk’s move to buy Twitter became public in an SEC filing on Thursday, where the billionaire electric vehicle manufacturer laid out his vision for the platform.
“No guidelines (for) your speech on social media can be a cause of concern, especially with with the kinds of issues that we’re seeing today,” said Mary Blankenship, a University of Nevada researcher who looks at how misinformation spreads through Twitter.
She pointed to COVID-19 as an example.
“We can see how that kind of misinformation really seeps into people’s perception of the medical dangers, and can actually lead to (them) either being infected or even death.”
Musk offered to buy 100 per cent of Twitter for US$54.20 per share “in cash.” That would work out to about US$43 billion for the entire purchase — a total Musk told a TED2022 conference he could “technically afford.”
He says he hopes to transform the platform into “an inclusive arena for free speech.”
“Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square,” Musk said.
“It’s just really important that people have the reality and the perception that they’re able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
How we define the bounds of the law, however, is where things get tricky.
Different countries have different laws regarding speech on social media or elsewhere. For example, the U.S. has a First Amendment right to free speech. Canada has a right to freedom of expression but it is subject to far more limits.
On top of that, Twitter, as it stands now, doesn’t do a great job when it comes to shutting down false narratives, according to misinformation experts.
“There really isn’t a lot of censorship,” said Carmen Celestini, an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo.
“I think they’ve done a really good job at trying to limit disinformation, especially stuff about COVID, conspiracy theories, everything like that — but there is a lot of seeping of that information, already, on Twitter.”
Blankenship agreed — propaganda and disinformation “still manages to seep through” on the platform.
“Now, imagine if you didn’t have any of the constraints imposed by social media sites, just how rampant disinformation and misinformation and propaganda is going to be,” she said.
Falsehoods are 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than facts, according to a 2018 study published by professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.
Falsehoods also reach their first 1,500 people six times faster, they found.
It’s an issue Blankenship knows all too well. She is Ukrainian, with family throughout Ukraine who feel the ramifications of misinformation every day.
“Elon Musk has stated that he wouldn’t even want to block any Russian news outlets,” Blankenship said, referring to Musk’s reluctance to bar Russian news from SpaceX’s satellite broadband company Starlink in Ukraine.
“These are news outlets that continuously call for, essentially, a genocide of the Ukrainian population.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used propaganda repeatedly in a bid to drum up support for his invasion of Ukraine. Between perpetuating lies about the number of neo-Nazis in Ukraine and rumours circulating about his quest to destroy alleged bioweapons labs in the country, information has become another tool of warfare in this conflict.
Celestini agreed that misinformation can be “a dangerous thing.”
“It affects populism, it affects politics. It affects people’s beliefs,” she said.
If misinformation and disinformation are allowed to spread without any constraints, this impact will “absolutely” grow, Celestini said.
Global News contacted Twitter to ask what percentage of the platform’s censorship is the result of a user spreading misinformation and disinformation. Twitter would not disclose any firm figures.
Rather, the website pointed Global News toward its rules — which include bans against “hateful content’ as well as any content that threatens “civic integrity,” such as elections.
Speaking to TED2022, Musk was pressed on where he’d draw the line in terms of free speech on Twitter, should his bid to buy the platform succeed.
He said repeatedly that any speech must fall “within the bounds of the law,” though he did not specify whose laws those would be. He also said Twitter should make its algorithm “open-source.”
There should be “no … behind the scenes of manipulation, either algorithmically or manually,” Musk said.
The self-described “free-speech absolutist” did not, however, lay out precise parameters of what he’d consider to be free speech.
For Celestini, concerns about Musk’s Twitter takeover could themselves be characterized as a sort of misinformation — because it hasn’t happened yet, and it’s unclear whether it will go ahead.
“Don’t worry about problems you don’t have,” she said.
A majority of shareholders will have to agree to Musk’s offer, which pitches the US$54.20 share price as his “best offer,” despite the stock trading at more than US$70 per share just last year.
Twitter’s audience, Celestini added, covers a wide variety of political views — and those with extreme views are not the majority.
“He’s not dumb enough to spend this much money to destroy something and lose all of that money,” she said.
“So we have to take that into consideration, if he truly wanted to build a free speech zone.”