Why is it so hard to let Musk’s leadership sink in?

(this piece previously appeared in Dutch in Knack)

With a kitchen sink he entered Twitter’s headquarters on Friday, making it clear to everyone that they should acquiesce to his takeover. “let that sink in”.

Why do so many people find it hard to let it sink in that Musk is now at the head of Twitter? Alarm bells go off for many that Donald Trump is coming back, along with a bunch of other foul-mouthed tweeters. Promises to make Twitter an “everything-app” like China’s We-chat make many shudder, as well as suggestions that misinformation is just an opinion, which Musk illustrated on his second day by tweeting a conspiracy theory about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

To be clear, Twitter is bound by legislation that pretty clearly defines how the platform is responsible to remove hate speech. The platform has also committed to following the European code of practice against disinformation, and the just-passed European Digital Services Act will also impose additional rules on the platform. As European Commissioner Thierry Breton tweeted on Friday, the Twitter bird will have to fly by EU rules.

At the same time, there is a lot of toxicity on the platform that is not illegal but unpleasant enough to make people’s lives miserable online, and there’s plenty of dubious information circulating on Twitter can take on a life of its own.

My main concern for Twitter lies in its architecture as a social medium, which is among others the focus of my PhD dissertation. That is because Twitter’s architecture has a direct consequence for the role Musk will be carrying from now on. Twitter, sometimes called “the hell site” by its users, is known as a platform with a lot of bickering. Although it is the source of many memes and interesting discoveries, discussions can get incredibly toxic. That’s in part due to the way Twitter is built. Whereas profile platforms like Facebook are built more like cul-de-sacs, places where people stay in conversation with their contacts and where the occasional visitor drops by, Twitter is built more like a busy city where different types of people are constantly interacting. As such, it regularly clashes between different norms of socially acceptable behavior. Years ago, the communication scientist danah boyd gave this phenomenon the name “context collapse,” a coming together of different contexts that collapse into each other with all its consequences. It is not uncommon for this to lead to conflict and for a norm to be enforced aggressively by a few outspoken users. At such moments, there is a need for community moderators. See it as a type of social worker who intervenes in disputes and urges people to calm down or return to their own neighborhood. If necessary, virtual police can also intervene to maintain order when things get out of hand.

The ability to intervene at Twitter falls almost entirely on the shoulders of the platform itself, and since Friday on those of the chief Twit himself; Elon Musk. Indeed, on Twitter, there is little room for community social workers. When users respond, it will rarely calm things down. On the contrary, such interactions actually elicit more algorithmic visibility due to Twitter’s architecture, which can reach even more participants from other contexts, resulting in even more clashing norms. At worst, some accounts are also picked out by tweeters with a big reach and end up in a Twitter storm. Thus, they can get the full brunt of hundreds, sometimes thousands of accounts. Such harassment need not exceed the boundaries of hate speech to make people miserable. ‘Networked harassment,’ as it is called, has impact because of its scale. The only defense users have in such cases is to put their accounts on private, which basically locks them in a silo in the virtual city, or block people, which in the case of networked harassment can feel like fighting an uphill battle. The last remedy then basically leaves users to not participate in discussions, or leave the platform.

This is why it’s important for Elon Musk to recognize his crushing responsibility to moderate as virtual police. Not that Twitter has done this in any particularly transparent or balanced way so far, but Musk has made it very clear that he prefers to do as little content moderation as possible. He wants to limit himself only to what is established by law as illegal speech. He claims this is necessary to ensure freedom of speech as much as possible.

What he does not seem to understand in doing so, is that it is not content moderation but rather the lack of content moderation that harms that freedom the most. When the line of decency is very low, nuanced voices are pushed out left and right, and minority voices that are inconsistent with the most common norm are suppressed by the loudest and most dominant voices. Mckay & Tenove also warned for ‘unjustified inclusions of falsehoods’, where democracies that give space to falsehoods displace and devalue the contributions of legitimate members of the public.

Weaker moderation policies ironically hurts free speech: The voices of real users will be drowned out by malicious users who manipulate Twitter through inauthentic accounts, bots and echo chambers. Only those with elephant skin, or mildly masochistic traits in the face of so much hostility, will stay on Twitter. Musk stated Friday that he sees a danger of social media breaking down into far-right and far-left echo chambers. Ironically, a lack of proper moderation could have this very effect on Twitter. in French there is a saying “Quand tous les dégoutés s’en vont, il n’ya que les dégoutants qui restent”.

The average reader may wonder why this is actually such a big deal, it is estimated that only 5-10% of Belgian Internet users have an active Twitter account. Yet many politicians, scientists and “something-ists” on the platform often behave as if the whole world is watching. Since Twitter is a medium where many journalists pick up information, this is unfortunately also often the case.

Due to poor moderation in recent years, there has already been a drain of minority voices on the platform, which may get worse under Musk’s policies. This is unfortunate because due to that aforementioned context collapse, Twitter is also a place where interesting exchanges happen between people from many different disciplines and walks of life. When minorities and nuanced voices are systematically pushed away in a place where the media often gets the mustard for what “lives” in society, we are once again served the same sameness.

We should give Musk the benefit of the doubt; he himself has tweeted that he does not want his 44 billion investment to become a “free-for-all hellscape. But the firing of the “trust and safety” officer on his first day shows that Musk already has his own interpretation of what a comfortable platform looks like. For some, it will be an anxious wait to see how he plans to fill his role as the guardian of this platform, and whether his leadership will not sink the entire Twitter ship.

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