Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s $44 billion deal to buy Twitter Monday met mixed reactions as observers speculated how digital speech on the service might change under his leadership.
Musk, a prolific Twitter user who has criticized Twitter’s management in tweets, said in the press release Monday announcing the deal that “Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
Musk’s takeover of Twitter was applauded by some U.S. conservatives who have alleged that internet firms — including Twitter — promote a liberal political agenda and suppress conservative voices.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, tweeted that it’s “amazing to watch the Left panic at the prospect of free speech on Twitter.”
But others expressed concern that Musk’s takeover would mean less moderation of hate speech and misinformation on the site.
Sumayyah Waheed, senior policy counsel with Muslim Advocates, a national civil rights organization, told VOA that Twitter doesn’t have a good track record of taking down hateful speech against Muslims.
“We already face threats and regular harassment on Twitter, and a weaker content moderation system will just make that even worse,” she said.
Twitter, with more than 400 million monthly active users, has a smaller audience than Facebook, with 3 billion users, and YouTube, with over 2 billion.
Twitter is primarily used in the U.S. and Western Europe, where it is influential among journalists, political leaders, celebrities and other thought leaders. Because powerful people use Twitter, it has an outsized influence, observers say.
Twitter allows people to post anonymously and is credited with helping marginalized voices around the world speak. Musk has talked recently of wanting to “authenticate all real humans” on the site, raising concerns among digital rights advocates that Twitter will require accounts to be tied to a person’s identity.
Twitter under Musk
Michael Posner, director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, said that Musk’s statements about free speech “are not very well developed.”
“We have to hope that once he gets into the driver’s seat, he understands that social media platforms need to be moderated by people who own them and run them,” he told VOA. “A site where content moderation is not taken seriously is going to yield spam, pornography, hate speech and disinformation, and all kinds of things that are not good for society.”
Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, said Twitter will probably change under the new leadership.
“Musk’s absolutist view of freedom of speech, his unfamiliarity with the challenges that many people face around the world in expressing their political points of view, these two things are going to clash,” he said in an interview with VOA. “And I expect that the Twitter of the future will look quite a bit different and quite a bit less inviting for many people.”
Concentration of power
Evan Greer, director of the digital rights organization Fight for the Future, said Musk’s acquisition exposes another issue: A handful of companies have a monopoly on “what can be seen, heard and done online,” she said.
“If we want a future of free speech, it’s not a future where the richest person on Earth can purchase a platform that millions of people depend on and then change the rules to his liking,” she said in an interview with VOA.
There’s been speculation that under Musk, former President Donald Trump, whom Twitter banned permanently in 2021, could return to the site. But Trump told Fox News prior to the announcement of the deal Monday that while he hoped that Musk would buy Twitter, he would not return to the service. Instead, he will join his own social media site, Truth Social, he said.
For his part, Musk appeared to acknowledge the varied reactions about his new role, tweeting Monday: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”