Elon Musk is taking over Twitter – now what?

The world’s richest person just bought Twitter. What does this mean for the future of free speech, democracy, and media?

The deal has caused huge worldwide discussion, soliciting comments from US President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump (the latter who was famously banned from the platform following the January 6 Riots). But does it really matter who owns Twitter?

Tesla and SpaceX owner Elon Musk has paid $44 billion USD ($61.3 billion AUD) for Twitter. The billionaire and free speech advocate has suggested he will make tweets editable, crack down on bots and stop accounts from getting banned.

Dr Steinar Ellingsen is a senior lecturer in Journalism, Communications and Media at the University of Wollongong. He says it is arguably not who owns Twitter that is most important, but how the ownership is structured. 

“The way it has been run is with a board that had shareholders to be accountable to. By making the company private, if Musk does want to make meaningful changes, whatever that means to him and other people, he has greater flexibility to do that without fighting shareholders,” he says.  

Unlike its predecessor Facebook, Twitter has failed to progress as a platform and subsequently failed to turn a profit. The network has only implemented two notable changes since its inception fifteen years ago: doubling the character length of Tweets, and the ability to create threads. However, Dr Ellingsen says these changes have been instrumental in revolutionising live news coverage. 

“It started off as more of an advertising platform, like ‘here’s a headline and the lead to attract you to click on a link, now go to our website and read the news’,” says Dr Ellingsen.  

“The biggest revolutions are the extension to 280 characters and being able to reply to your own tweets to make threads, because it’s helped journalists use the platform in more meaningful ways in that you’re able to not only report the news [as it’s happening] but you can contextualise in a thread which makes it more useful and have open engagement with more audiences.” 

Musk, a self-described ‘free-speech absolutist’ has vowed for less moderation on the platform. While companies like Facebook have become stricter (page owners are now responsible for any defamatory comments made on their posts) Dr Ellingsen says Musk’s relaxed outlook could open users and accounts up to legal action. 

“You’re potentially opening the floodgates to propaganda and disinformation, fake news, as well as hate speech. Facebook pages have moderators, and if they don’t have a moderator on hand, they’ll close the comments section so you can’t engage anymore,” he says. 

“With less moderation, I think we will see more litigation in these areas, as well as defamation, that, in turn, will be challenging the notion of free speech.” 

Dr Ellingsen says it’s difficult to say what developments we will see on Twitter under Musk’s ownership, with the most tangible modification the addition of an edit button.  

“For journalists, that would be a godsend because occasionally journalists get their facts wrong, particularly when they are at the scene. Giving reporters the ability to edit their facts, as long as it’s transparent and done according to the best ethical processes, would be a welcome change,” he says.  

But for every upside, there is a potential downside.

“If this function is indeed introduced, will it come with an edit history? If it doesn’t, it could be used for scams, abuse or harassment. Scammers could go and edit a post to make it look like the terms people signed up for are different to what they saw.” 

Musk’s blanket crackdown on bots could also hinder the platform’s capabilities to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle, says Dr Ellingsen says, with AI software used to report a range of data sets, such as the LA QuakeBot, an account which reports Los Angeles earthquakes as they happen.  

“Bots are used on twitter as sort of AI reporters for things like medal tallies at the Olympics or trawling through police reports. Does this ban on bots mean there’s going to be less opportunities for this generated content on Twitter?” Dr Ellingsen says.  

There has been speculation around whether @ElonJet, a bot which uses publicly available data to track Elon Musk’s private jet, will be taken down under Musk’s ownership. Musk previously offered the 19-year-old account owner $5000 to shut down the handle. 

“There’s lots of implications for these changes that are both potentially very positive and also can be kind of dangerous. Twitter could become a new frontier with some exciting developments, but that will take some serious investments – on top of the already hugely inflated sales tag. The biggest item on Musk’s agenda will likely rather be trying to somehow make this thing he bought so worth the money he paid for it. ”