That, however, is only a possibility in the Musk era, which is just beginning. Now that “the bird is released,” as he wrote Thursday after officially taking over, many users are concerned that after years of slow improvements in the site’s functionality, policies and moderation processes, the billionaire’s purchase will generally translate into in its degradation.
These fears are not without justification: while much of what Musk will do is left to us to guess, he has been clear that under his leadership there will be radical policy changes. In addition to potentially following the local laws of authoritarian governments, this could include a loosening of the platform’s speech rules and a user authentication requirement that would challenge users’ ability to remain anonymous. He’s also made a series of terse and sometimes contradictory statements about how he thinks the site should moderate content, including that Twitter should remove only speech that’s illegal.
And there are already moves that we don’t have to guess. While Musk recently walked back claims that he planned to lay off a third of the company’s workforce, it was reported late Thursday that senior executives had been fired and “hastily escorted” from the company’s headquarters. This included Vijaya Gadde, the company’s head of legal, trust and security policy, whom Musk had antagonized in April. tweet.
Gadde’s tenure was not without controversy, but under his leadership the legal team made significant policy advances, many of which were aimed at protecting the platform’s most vulnerable users. Twitter rejected attempts by US courts to unmask anonymous users; cracked down on botnets and other influence operations; worked with the New Zealand government to develop tools to facilitate independent research into the impacts of user interactions with algorithmic systems; banned political ads in the run-up to the 2020 US election; and hired researchers to study the health of discourse on the site.
For many of Twitter’s vulnerable users, these changes represented major advances from its beginnings as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” where almost anything, including terrorist content, harassment and hate speech ‘odi, could be found. But Musk has said that “freedom of expression is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where vital issues for the future of humanity are debated.” While he’s recently tempered previous statements by saying he won’t turn Twitter into a “free-for-all hellscape,” it seems pretty clear that the new boss intends to roll back some of Twitter’s rules.
Musk has also said he would scale back Twitter’s attempts to fight misinformation and disinformation. That would be a mistake. Twitter has carefully crafted policies and tools that allow free speech while inhibiting the spread of false content, such as prompts that encourage users to actually read what they’re sharing and tags that provide additional context to potential misinformation. With major elections coming up in dozens of countries in the next two years, these tools are essential to ensure that Twitter remains a space for civic engagement.