Elon Musk’s bid highlights Twitter’s unique role in public debate — and what changes it could bring – Technology News, Firstpost
The conversationApr 16, 2022 10:26:08 IST
Twitter has been in the news a lot lately, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The stock growth has languished and the platform itself has largely remained the same since its inception in 2006. On April 14, 2022, Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, made an offer to buy Twitter and take the public company private.
In a filing with the Securities and Exchange CommissionMusk stated, “I invested in Twitter because I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the world, and I believe that freedom of speech is a societal necessity for a functioning democracy.”
Like a social media platform researcher, I think Musk’s potential ownership of Twitter and his stated reasons for buying the company raise significant issues. Those issues stem from the nature of the social media platform and what sets it apart from others.
What makes Twitter unique
Twitter occupies a unique niche. Its short text snippets and threading promote real-time conversations among thousands of people, making it popular with celebrities, media personalities, and politicians alike.
Social media analysts talk about the half-life of content on a platform, which means that the time it takes for a piece of content to reach 50% of its total lifetime engagement is usually measured in number of views or popularity-based metrics. The average half-life of a tweet is in 20 minutes, compared to five hours for Facebook posts, 20 hours for Instagram posts, 24 hours for LinkedIn posts, and 20 days for YouTube videos. The much shorter half-life illustrates the pivotal role Twitter has come to play in driving real-time conversations as events unfold.
Twitter’s ability to shape real-time discourse, as well as the ease with which data, including geo-tagged data, can be collected from Twitter has made it a goldmine for researchers to analyze a variety of societal phenomena ranging from public health to politics. Twitter data has been used to predict asthma-related emergency room visitsmeasuring unit public epidemic awarenessand model wildfire smoke spread†
Tweets that are part of a conversation shown in chronological orderand while much of a tweet’s engagement is preloaded, the Twitter archive provides instant and full access to any public Tweet† This positions Twitter as a historical chronicler and a fact-checker.
Changes in Musk’s Mind
A crucial issue is how Musk’s ownership of Twitter, and the private control of social media platforms in general, affects the wider public good. In a series of deleted tweets, Musk made several suggestions for changing Twitterincluding adding an edit button for tweets and granting automatic verification flags to premium users.
There is no experimental evidence on how an edit button would change information transfer on Twitter. However, it is possible to extrapolate from previous research that analyzed deleted tweets.
There are countless ways to retrieve deleted tweets, allowing researchers to study them. Although some studies show that significant personality differences between users who delete their tweets and those who don’t, these findings suggest that deleting tweets is a way people can manage their online identity†
Analyzing removal behavior can also provide valuable clues about: online credibility and misinformation† Likewise, if Twitter adds an edit button, analyzing the patterns of editing behavior can provide insight into Twitter users’ motivations and how they present themselves.
Studies of bot-generated activity on Twitter have concluded that: nearly half of accounts tweeting about COVID-19 are likely bots† Datum partisanship and political polarization in online spacesGiving users – whether automated bots or real people – the option to edit their tweets, could become another weapon in the disinformation arsenal used by bots and propagandists. Editing tweets allows users to selectively distort what they said, or deny making inflammatory comments, which could complicate efforts to spot misinformation.
Twitter’s content moderation and revenue model
To understand Musk’s motivations and what’s next for social media platforms like Twitter, it’s important to consider the gigantic — and opaque — online advertising ecosystem involving multiple technologies used by ad networks, social media companies, and publishers. Advertising it is primary source of income for Twitter†
Musk’s vision is to monetize Twitter from subscriptions rather than ads. Without having to worry about attracting and retaining advertisers, Twitter would have less pressure to focus on content moderation. This would turn Twitter into a sort of freewheeling opinion site for paying subscribers. Twitter has been aggressive in using content moderation in its efforts to tackle disinformation.
Musk’s description of a platform free from content moderation issues is troubling in light of the algorithmic damage caused by social media platforms. Research has shown many of these damages, such as: algorithms that assign gender to users, possible inaccuracies and biases in algorithms used to collect information from these platforms, and the impact on them looking for health information online†
Testimony by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and recent regulatory efforts such as the online security law unveiled in the UK show that there is widespread public concern about the role technology platforms play in shaping popular discourse and public opinion. Musk’s possible offer on Twitter points to a whole host of regulatory issues†
Because of Musk’s other companies, Twitter’s ability to influence public opinion in the sensitive aviation and automotive sectors would automatically create a conflict of interest, not to mention influencing the disclosure of: material information necessary for shareholders. Musk has already been accused of delaying the disclosure of his proprietary interest in Twitter†
Twitter’s own algorithmic bias bounty challenge concluded that a community-led approach is needed to build better algorithms. A highly creative exercise developed by the MIT Media Lab asks high school students to: rediscover the YouTube platform with ethics in mind† Maybe it’s time to ask Twitter to do the same, whoever owns and runs the company.