Elon Musk’s offer highlights this; What Changes Might Be in Store Twitter’s Algorithmic Bias Bounty Challenge concluded that it takes a community approach to building better algorithms. A very creative exercise developed by the MIT Media Lab asks middle school students to reinvent the YouTube platform with ethics in mind. Maybe it’s time to ask Twitter to do the same, whoever owns and runs the business
Twitter has been in the news a lot lately, but for the wrong reasons. Its stock growth has languished, and the platform itself has remained largely the same since its inception in 2006.
On April 14, 2022, Elon Musk, the richest person in the world, made an offer to buy Twitter and privatize the state-owned company. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Musk said, “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 expression is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”
As a researcher of social media platforms, I find Musk’s potential ownership of Twitter and his reasons for buying the company raise important questions. These 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 chunks and chat threads promote real-time conversations among thousands of people, making it popular with celebrities, media personalities, and politicians. Social media analysts talk about the half-life of content on a platform, which is the time it takes for a piece of content to reach 50% of its total lifetime engagement, usually measured in number of views or in metrics based on popularity. The average half-life of a tweet is around 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 now has in driving real-time conversations as events unfold.
Twitter’s ability to shape discourse in real time, as well as the ease with which data, including geotagged 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. Data from Twitter has been used to predict asthma-related emergency room visits, measure public awareness of the outbreak, and model wildfire smoke dispersal. Tweets that are part of a conversation are displayed in chronological order, and while much of a tweet’s engagement is pre-loaded, the Twitter Archive provides instant and complete access to every public tweet. This positions Twitter as a historical chronicler and de facto fact checker.
Changes in Musk’s mind
A crucial question is how Musk’s ownership of Twitter and private control of social media platforms in general affect the broader public welfare. In a series of deleted tweets, Musk made several suggestions on how to change Twitter, including adding an edit button for tweets and granting auto-verification marks to premium users. There is no experimental evidence on how an edit button would alter the transmission of information on Twitter. However, it is possible to extrapolate from previous research that analyzed deleted tweets. Analysis of suppression behavior can also provide valuable clues about online credibility and misinformation.
Advertising is Twitter’s main source of revenue. Musk’s vision is to generate revenue for Twitter from subscriptions rather than advertising. Without having to worry about attracting and retaining advertisers, Twitter would have less pressure to focus on content moderation. This would make Twitter a kind of freewheeling opinion site for paying subscribers.
Musk’s description of a platform free of content moderation issues is troubling in light of the algorithmic damage done by social media platforms. Research has shown a host of these harms, such as the algorithms that assign users’ gender, potential inaccuracies and biases in the algorithms used to glean information from these platforms, and the impact on those seeking information on online health. The testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and recent regulatory efforts such as the Online Safety Bill unveiled in the UK show that the role tech platforms play in shaping popular discourse and public opinion. public opinion is widely worrying.
Musk’s potential offer on Twitter highlights a whole host of regulatory concerns. Due to Musk’s other activities, Twitter’s ability to sway public opinion in the sensitive aviation and automotive sectors would automatically create a conflict of interest, not to mention disclosing material information needed by shareholders. Musk has previously been accused of delaying disclosure of his Twitter stake.
Twitter’s Algorithmic Bias Bounty Challenge concluded that there needs to be a community-led approach to building better algorithms. A very creative exercise developed by the MIT Media Lab asks middle school students to reinvent the YouTube platform with ethics in mind. Maybe it’s time to ask Twitter to do the same, whoever owns and runs the business.
(The Conversation; Writer is Professor of Information Systems, Michigan State University, USA)