SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has completed his acquisition of Twitter, dissolving its board of directors and floating ideas on how to change the platform — and now some social media experts are weighing in on what the Musk era will do for democracy and free speech through the platform.
Musk, who is now the sole member of the company's board, finalized the deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion US last Thursday, and almost immediately fired the company's CEO, CFO and head of legal.
In an open letter to Twitter advertisers, Musk said he bought the company because "it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence."
But "Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said without consequences," he added.
"He has a lot of ideas around free speech and not a lot of them match up with what most of us in a valid democracy agree with," Jesse Miller, lecturer at the University of Victoria's faculty of education and founder of the social media education company Mediated Reality, told CBC's On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko.
As Musk's ideas for content moderation unfolds, according to Alfred Hermida, the billionaire will be bound to the regulations and the countries where Twitter operates.
"The European Union has made it very clear to Elon that they have strict rules on hate speech and other forms of speech like that and if you break those rules, you will be held liable," said Hermida, professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia's School of Journalism, Writing, and Media.
Both say Musk's changing narrative about Twitter's policies is part of the problem.
"What Elon Musk says one day is not the same thing as he says the next day because he's also tweeted out saying they're not going to make any changes to their content moderation policies," Hermida said.
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On Tuesday, Musk tweeted a revamped verification process for Twitter users, where anyone can get verified with a blue tick beside their account name as long as they are willing to pay $8 a month, with the "price adjusted by country proportionate to purchasing power parity."
In exchange, verified users will be able to post longer messages and videos, receive fewer ads, and get prioritized in searches and mentions, which Musk believes is "essential to defeat spam/scam" that he says plagues the system.
Twitter's relevancy in a democracy is interesting, says Miller, because it is a tool used by presidents, governments, public officials and netizens for information sharing.
And so, the blue tick on Twitter, also known as the verified badge, lets users know that information shared from a verified account is of public interest, authentic and notable.
But Hermida says there are other ways to verify information we see online, by teaching people media literacy, for example, and using skills journalists use — but in everyday life.
"You want to find out who the person is or the profile, you can search for them, you can look at their picture, you can do a reverse image search, you can see there are other people saying similar things," he said.
"So in some ways, the verified blue tick is really more like a badge of honour, like for bragging rights on Twitter to say, 'I've been verified.'"
'An opportunity to really do some social good'
Following the acquisition, many Twitter users have announced their exit from the social media platform, raising the question: what next?
While Twitter is "small fish" compared to other platforms like Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp or Instagram, Hermida says it has an outsized influence because it's used by celebrities, politicians, activists, journalists and acts as a public megaphone to amplify issues or messages.
"It's hard to see how that would operate on other platforms that don't have the same degree of openness, of connectedness and of publicness," he said.
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With Musk aspiring for Twitter to become the "most respected advertising platform in the world," Miller says he is interested to see if the social media platform goes on to offer more personalized e-commerce interactions for users.
But what Miller fundamentally wants to see, he says, is Elon bring in individuals who have advocated for social change on the platform, like people in Iran or the Arab Spring, and use social media to direct the world's attention to issues that might not otherwise get traditional North American news coverage.
"This is where he has an opportunity to really do some social good," he said.
"Question is whether or not he will."