It’s official: Tesla tycoon Elon Musk has closed the deal to purchase Twitter for $44 billion. Musk’s acquisition marks a turning point in billionaire spending, departing from the norm of the wealthiest using their companies to make large purchases. Think Mark Zuckerberg who bought Instagram via Meta, and Jeff Bezos who bought Whole Foods with Amazon.
Under Musk’s buyout, one man now holds the reins of a platform used by 240 million people. This raises a multitude of questions in regard to Twitter’s future, an important one being, will Musk allow hate speech and misinformation under the guise of free speech?
Since their inception, social media platforms like Twitter have been subject to the circulation of misinformation due to algorithms that manipulate users into only seeing like minded accounts. While for certain hobbies this might not be a problem, it can be dangerous when users look to social media as a primary source for news coverage and forming opinions on controversial topics. Twitter specifically has been under fire for its algorithm promoting misinformation. A 2018 study found that fake news reaches more people than factual information does on Twitter.
“When people in positions of power and the public start to echo extremist rhetoric, it’s even more likely that we’re going to see real-world consequences,” said former Rutgers University institute of politics Director John Farmer.
San Francisco witnessed these consequences this past week with the brutal attack of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 82 year-old husband Paul Pelosi. On Friday at 2 a.m., David DePape broke into their home and attacked Pelosi with a hammer. Now in custody, authorities have revealed that DePape has a long internet history with QAnon, an internet conspiracy theory phenomenon associated with anti-semitic statements and paranoia over perceived anti-white racism.
Studies across the world have concluded that a strong link exists between online speech and acts of violence targeted towards marginalized people. In the last decade, numerous tragedies like the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and the 2019 Poway synagogue shooting have unfolded testifying to the power of misinformation.
In a statement, Musk assured users that Twitter will not transform into a “free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences.” But, as we have seen, violent rhetoric never remains within the echo chambers of our digital world.
Since Musk’s buy out of Twitter, racist trolls have taken to the app to test the limits of free speech. As reported by the Princeton-based Network Contagion Research Institute the use of the N-word increased by 500% in the 12 hour period following Musk’s acquisition. In response, NBA player Lebron James tweeted, “I hope he [Musk] and his people take this very seriously because this is scary AF. So many damn unfit people saying hate speech is free speech.”
This year, Twitter began testing out the experimental program “Birdwatch” where a small, select group of users can fact check tweets and provide context notes to Tweets which may not directly violate Twitter community guidelines but do present false information. Who knows if this program will become more accessible, or even survive under Musk’s leadership.
As we watch and wait to see what will happen to one of the world’s main sources for news, we wonder what the future of news sharing will look like on Twitter. Given Musk’s record as a “free speech absolutist,” we hope that he will protect the platform from becoming a den for racism and white supremacy.