Elon Musk, Twitter and the Social-Media Double Bind

Twitter doesn't need different content moderation policies - social media needs an entirely different architecture.

AccessTimeIconOct 5, 2022 at 4:43 p.m. UTC
Updated Oct 5, 2022 at 6:21 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconOct 5, 2022 at 4:43 p.m. UTCUpdated Oct 5, 2022 at 6:21 p.m. UTCLayer 2
AccessTimeIconOct 5, 2022 at 4:43 p.m. UTCUpdated Oct 5, 2022 at 6:21 p.m. UTCLayer 2

Elon Musk is buying Twitter (TWTR).

No, he means it this time, really. Probably.

In some corners of the internet, Elon Musk and Twitter’s recommitment ceremony is being celebrated for a worrying reason: not because Musk will make Twitter a better company for users, but because he will (some believe) use his new $44 billion toy as a weapon against his political enemies.

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Let’s leave aside for a moment whether owning the libs is a good thing or not. The real issue is that one man could conceivably control such an important site of public discourse. Elon Musk may soon have the individual power to decide who can and can’t use Twitter, which would give him substantial influence over public perception, not just in the U.S., but around the world. That’s potentially disastrous both for the public and for Twitter as a company (the latter being one reason it might not happen).

The ultimate takeaway is that a service like Twitter shouldn't have a single point of failure, including a takeover by a slightly unhinged billionaire. Many experts at least in theory support a shift from centrally controlled “platforms” like Twitter and toward open “protocols” that allow for mobility and interaction across platforms, the same way email and RSS feeds do for other digital communication today.

But first, you might be thinking: Didn’t Elon Musk already buy Twitter?

It is indeed confusing. Musk first said he was going to buy Twitter back in April, because he was mad about certain people being blocked or banned from the publicly traded social-media site. But then he tried to back out, maybe because the stock market slumped, but also maybe because the whole thing was actually cover for dumping close to $15 billion in Tesla (TSLA) stock and he has bad lawyers. Hard to say, really.

Musk sued Twitter with some tissue-thin pretexts about bots to end the deal and was set to go to trial this month, but he may have finally realized just how terrible his lawyers (or his own legal instincts) are. He has now told Twitter that he will proceed with the sale at the original $44 billion price, news that sent Twitter's stock up nearly 25% on Tuesday.

Ironically, we have reason to trust Musk’s seriousness here because he didn’t announce this on Twitter, but instead sent a letter to Twitter that Twitter then filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The 'editorial' issue

So, back to protocols and platforms. The fundamental problem facing Twitter and other social-media sites is that they have, bit by bit, been forced to become editorial decision-makers, including on major topics such as whether to let Donald Trump tweet. Elon Musk, alongside a broader pivot toward the political right, has said he would allow the former president back on the platform.

More generally, Musk has decried “censorship” by Twitter, likely including the platform’s crackdown on skepticism of vaccines and other COVID-19 measures, which Musk has occasionally seemed to share.

There are reasons to think Musk doesn’t have a nuanced understanding of content moderation, and to an extent, that’s fair enough: He appears to simply want as little moderation as possible. But that’s not workable as long as Twitter is a company, for two reasons. First, like it or not, Twitter has the ability to control what content is seen through the service, and that implies both legal and ethical responsibility to at the very least block content that exploits children or foments violence. Ultimately, a human has to decide where even that line lies.

Second, whether it’s public or private, Twitter is a for-profit enterprise, and it has decided that blocking certain people, behaviors and content is good for its overall business. Legalities aside, for instance, it seems that kicking Donald Trump off Twitter has made the service more enjoyable for a large segment of users. And crucially, Musk will probably need Twitter’s revenue to pay off his big purchase, and so once he’s actually pot committed, his desire to shake things up might fade away.

Free speech

These dynamics create a serious double bind for Twitter and other companies that promise unrestricted freedom of speech. The issue was a serious pain point for Twitter founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, who had to watch, and at times oversaw, the company’s descent from the "the free speech wing of the free speech party” to what it is today. Ahead of Musk’s takeover announcement, Dorsey lobbied Musk to remake Twitter in a radically new form.

“Twitter started as a protocol,” Dorsey texted Musk back in March. “It should have never been a company. That was the original sin.”

A broadly accepted social-media protocol would, above all, solve the content moderation dilemma by separating content hosting from moderation. Different clients would be able to apply different filtering or ranking algorithms to the same stream of posts, in the same way different email services filter spam differently. They would be able to test different business models informed by those different algorithms. That would leave Twitter and other content hosts free to do only the most minimal content moderation without shouldering responsibility for controversial edge cases.

But is there any realistic path to getting there? Back in 2019, Dorsey announced that Twitter would launch a “small team” to create an “open and decentralized standard for social media,” called Blue Sky. Twitter has the heft and scale to introduce a credible protocol, but there hasn’t been much news on that front since. The more conventional route of companies collaborating on a standard through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has been largely dormant for years.

Put simply, companies have concluded that building walled gardens is the best way to profit from social media.

There may be a credible path to using blockchain to create an open social standard, but in practical terms, the Web3 community hasn’t had much better luck than Twitter or W3C. The most high-profile attempts to create a blockchain-based open social layer have been ill-conceived and possibly little more than hasty buzzword-driven cash grabs. More credible projects such as the Lens Protocol do exist, but scaling them up will be a long and uncertain process.

In the meantime, it looks like many of us will be living in Elon Musk’s world for a while, even more than we were before.


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David Z. Morris

David Z. Morris was CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.