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Twitter drama will reset attitudes to content moderation

The final acquisition of social media platform Twitter by billionaire Elon Musk only marks the start of the disruption this event is likely to cause.

Twitter is a social media minnow compared to the likes of Facebook/Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, etc, when you look at pretty much all the important business metrics. The ephemeral nature of the main feed has made it difficult to monetize and there’s no obvious solution to that problem. So as a business move alone, the acquisition doesn’t make much sense, which may be why Musk seemed so keen to get out of it.

But its cultural, and thus political, influence is far in excess of its business footprint. A minority of people even look at it, let alone publish on it. One clumsy tweet can have catastrophic consequences and the format seems to encourage the most counter-productive interactions. Those that do, however, are given unique power to message and interact with millions of people instantaneously. The rise of Twitter journalism often provides massive amplification of that activity, too.

It’s likely that Donald Trump wouldn’t have won in 2016, and come so close to re-election, without Twitter. Another seismic political event of 2016 – the UK Brexit vote – is also considered to have been heavily influenced by social media, so much so that a false narrative was spun soon after that these electoral events must have been a consequence of nefarious activities.

Before social media the channels through which politicians or anyone else could efficiently communicate with the broader population were relatively few and subject to fairly predictable incentives. This meant major political surprises were rare as messaging could be dominated by established forces with the deepest pockets and greatest influence. 2016 seems to have profoundly alarmed that establishment, which has sought to somehow put the social media genie back in the bottle ever since.

The UK, US and elsewhere have explored new legislation as well as applying direct pressure to social media platforms to censor content they consider ‘harmful’. That is, of course, a completely subjective concept and, if defined by politicians, will inevitably focus on anything they consider to be harmful to them. As ever, the main issue with censorship lies with the question of who decides. In other words, power.

While Musk’s wealth qualifies him as a member of the establishment, he is unpredictable, to say the least. While Twitter was a publicly-traded company its leaders were fairly constrained by lawmakers, investors and other wielders of power. As the sole owner of the now-private Twitter, Musk is theoretically free to do whatever he wants with it. So long as Twitter remains as politically influential as it is, that places a lot of power in the hands of someone the establishment struggles to control.

So we’ve had all manner of histrionics since the deal went through, with every day yielding a fresh round of reporting, based on anonymous inside sources, usually critical of some rumoured Musk initiative. Musk himself seems to be taking all this fuss in his stride, updating his Twitter profile to identify him as ‘Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator’. One manifestation of that role was illustrated by his interaction with Author Stephen King over a proposed monetisation initiative, while another tweet apparently sought reassure US politicians ahead of an imminent set of elections.

No amount of reassurance is likely to be sufficient for establishment forces alarmed by such a significant tool of public influence being placed in the hands of someone they have so little control over. There are already reports of the US state seeking to block the acquisition, which follow recent revelations of its sinister attempts to police internet speech.

There does, of course, need to be some moderation of public speech, but we have always argued that those parameters should be dictated by laws, rather than the whims of individuals or clumsy algorithms. Musk is now in the middle of a battle between those who seek to use Twitter to control and manipulate, and those who want to open it up. He seems more inclined towards the latter and how successful he is in doing so could set a precedent that will have very wide implications.

 

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