Twitter: Elon’s Battle Over Free Speech Is A Fight Against Content Moderation
Later today, Twitter’s board will reportedly announce its decision on Elon Musk’s bid to buy the company. (Update: Elon Musk is acquiring Twitter.) What will actually happen to Twitter if Musk takes over is mere speculation at best. His avant-garde leadership style might accelerate the release of some highly demanded user features and changes in policy (edit button, anyone?), but at the same time, Musk’s irreverent and unpredictable behavior could drive top Twitter talent out the door — doing more harm than good to the product. What we do know is that as polarizing as Elon Musk is, so is the Twitter community about his potential takeover.
Twitter Users Are Polarized About An Elon Musk Takeover
Over the weekend, Forrester conducted a quick “pulse check” poll* of 744 online adults in its ConsumerVoices Market Research Online Community (MROC) across the US, Canada, and the UK to gauge user sentiment about Musk’s plans for Twitter. We segmented the respondents to isolate only those who use Twitter (285 online adults). The results of the poll indicate that:
- About a quarter (68 users) feel that if Elon Musk acquires Twitter, he will make Twitter better.
- One in 10 (30 users) express that content moderation practices on Twitter around hate speech and misinformation are too strict and should be loosened.
- 48 users support Elon’s tweet about making Twitter’s headquarters a homeless shelter.
- Over a third (98 users) think Twitter’s algorithm should be open source/made public.
- The large majority (176 users) want spam bots on Twitter to be eliminated.
- Almost three-quarters (191 users) want to be able to edit their Tweets after they’ve posted them.
*Note: This poll was administered to a random sample of 744 online consumers in the US, UK, and Canada in Forrester’s qualitative ConsumerVoices online community. This data is not weighted to be representative of total country populations.
Disinformation And Hate Speech Are Ultimately At Stake
Last Thursday, former President Obama called for more regulation of the tech industry, saying that disinformation on social media is harming American democracy. However, Elon Musk implies that Twitter’s content moderation policies are too strict and at odds with Twitter as a “town square” — something most of the respondents to our poll disagree with. Simply put, the first amendment doesn’t apply to private companies.
In an age fraught with misinformation and disinformation, the parameters around free speech become murky because algorithms built to promote “click-worthy” content, combined with bots spreading risky content, give disinformation a tailwind. While touted as a battle over free speech, this is really a battle around content moderation: Is it responsible, or is it censorship? This leads to questions on whether Musk would address disinformation and hate speech on Twitter or enable it to further amplify in the name of free speech.
Ad Dollars Are At Risk If Twitter Becomes More Like Gab
Don’t be fooled by the stock price moving on a potential Elon Musk-led transformation. Just eliminating bots doesn’t solve the problems with the platform. If Elon decides to loosen content moderation policies, he puts Twitter ad dollars at risk. Allowing users to say anything they want could turn the platform into a mainstream Gab. Brands are becoming more conscious of their adjacency to risky content or disinformation, so they may take their dollars to other channels with greater safety measures in place.
My colleague, Kelsey Chickering, has a Forrester report coming out in May that dives deep into ways that brands are funding disinformation and what they should do about it. Stay tuned.