Freeing Twitter

Elon Musk should strive to turn Twitter into a source of good, where opinions are weighted and whose primary aim should not be to entertain but rather to inform people


Afew months back, the world was surprised by the news that Elon Musk, the tech mogul (founder of companies like PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, and Neuralink, to name a few), decided to purchase Twitter. The company has been hoovering on his radar since 2017, when he bought the initial 5%. At the time, Musk was pondering Twitter’s commitment to freedom of speech, and at one point, he even floated the idea of creating a rival platform to Twitter. However, it seems that it was easier to purchase the majority of shares in the company (if you have the money), which is what he did when he submitted a bid for $44 billion. Today, he is the majority shareholder of Twitter, and the rest is history. But what does this move means for the rest of us?

Musk’s motives might be cryptic at times, but if we try to dig into them, we find that, according to him, Twitter is a sort of town square where people go to talk about anything happening under the sun. Because of this, he believes that it is essential to guarantee users, the faculty, to speak freely but within the bounds of the law. He believes that Twitter can become a space where millions of users that use the platform can debate a different range of beliefs healthily and without resorting to violence.

One of the things that triggered this belief seems to be the permanent ban on former president Donald Trump. After years of posting controversial tweets, in 2021, Trump tweeted about the people who stormed the US Capitol and called them “patriots”. Their actions not only threatened democracy but also caused the physical death of at least four civilians. After being temporarily banned for 12 hours and reinstated with a warning, he continued tweeting, suggesting that the US Presidential election of 2021 was illegitimate and indicating that he would not support an orderly transition for the new government. This message was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Twitter decided to ban Trump permanently.

Musk believes such actions might lead to further polarization and plans to take action. Even though it’s still early days, many are concerned that Twitter’s change in ownership might relax the moderation guidelines that affect the use of violence, hate speech, or other offensive content on the platform. His online interventions are somewhat contrasting, indicating that anything should be allowed as long as they don’t break the law, but he also states that Twitter should not become a “free-for-all hellscape”.

Of course, while his ideas may be noble, achieving such a feat is easier said than done. The problems associated with social media cannot be avoided by simply allowing any: Tom, Dick, and Harry to express their views freely.

First of all, not all views are equal, and as such, they shouldn’t be on the same level. The opinions of a seasoned virologist speaking about the pandemic should be worth more than those of someone who spends his days surfing the web. The virologist passed through years of study and probably has decades of experience, so his views must have a higher weight.

Second, the algorithm is not interested in who has the authority to express particular views and who doesn’t. So if an uninformed individual starts spreading fake news on a specific topic, the simple fact that he has more followers than an expert will result in a broader distribution of his views.

Third, not everything is a matter of opinion. Placing pineapple on a pizza might be debatable for most people, and it’s fine to debate it. But whether or not the vaccines work is not a matter of opinion. The results are based on rigorous scientific experiments and can only be refuted by performing other counter-experiments.

Fourth, various studies have shown that polarisation seems to be a side effect of social networking algorithms. If we look at the business models behind these applications, they try to keep people online as much as possible, expose them to adverts and make money the more adverts they watch. The result of this is that the priority of the algorithm is not to show good quality content but to show content that keeps the user on the platform. In fact, the scope behind social networks is not really to inform but to entertain. That is why the death of Grumpy Cat gets more prominence than the thousands of people who died in the war in Ukraine. The algorithms also learned that polarization and conflicts make people interact more. If a person is interested in a topic, exposing him to posts supporting that stance or those rejecting it makes him likelier to like or comment on it.

So even though Elon’s intentions might be noble, the ways in which these algorithms work makes it highly unlikely that he will succeed. The problems we are having are not just related to freedom of speech but more to the fact that anyone can use such social networks to amplify his opinions even though they might not be valid. We are giving a platform to all sorts of noise, and by doing so, we are doing a disservice to humanity.

Elon Musk should strive to turn Twitter into a source of good, where opinions are weighted and whose primary aim should not be to entertain but rather to inform people. Only then can we hope to have the first Social Network working for good and not to fill the pockets of its investors!

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