Elon Musk holds Earth in his hands. Superimposed over Earth is a box to write a Tweet.
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On Monday, April 25, 2022, Twitter agreed to sell its platform to Elon Musk for a whopping $44 billion. As the world’s richest person, Musk owns an extensive network of companies including, but not limited to, the electric car producer, Tesla, and the aerospace manufacturer, SpaceX. A few of Musk’s less recognizable enterprises are the Neuralink Corporation, which works to develop an implantable brain-machine interface, and OpenAI, an artificial intelligence research laboratory.

As a social media platform, Twitter stands out from the other companies Musk has traditionally invested in, which are typically aimed toward some sort of technological advancement. Despite this difference, however, it seems Musk may actually have a transformative plan underway for Twitter.

Musk has spoken at length about his intentions behind the purchase, stating that his “strong, intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.” He has touched upon Twitter’s potential to become a free platform for public debate — as well as his intention to unlock that potential — but has not given many details of how he plans to do so.

During a TED interview, Musk brought up the issue of free speech on social media, stating that he feels that our society needs an all-encompassing place to speak our minds “within the bounds of the law,” and wants Twitter to become that place. As content moderation is a facet of social media that Musk views as a gray area rather than a black-and-white issue, some citizens are concerned that Twitter will become a breeding ground for extremist content.

Musk leaves us wondering what content falls “within the bounds of the law” in his eyes. A prominent example of content moderation is former President Donald Trump’s permanent suspension from Twitter. Trump was suspended after inciting riots through his tweets leading up to, during and after the Capitol attack in January 2021.

Based on Musk’s advocacy for being “very cautious” with permanent bans, and his statement, “If it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist,” it seems likely Trump and other banned users such as Roger Stone, a former campaign aide of Trump’s who was banned from Twitter in 2017 after a series of tirades against various journalists, could be allowed back on the app in the future.

This could greatly impact the political climate, as Trump used Twitter as his primary form of communication with his nearly 89 million followers. Twitter helped facilitate the growth of Trump’s support base into a following that can be likened to a fandom, with all his misinformation and propaganda immediately available at his followers’ fingertips.

It is quite possible that reinstating Trump’s Twitter could bring his supporters back in full force — and with even greater fervency. The consequences of this could be an even greater heightening of the political polarization that is present today.

Musk’s mentality regarding permanent suspensions of Twitter accounts could be for the worse. However, in spite of all this speculation, Trump made a recent statement that he would not return to Twitter because of his frustration with his treatment on the platform in the past.

Even without Trump’s presence, it is plausible that Twitter could turn into a brutal playground for political retorts and closed-mindedness. Without rules banning such behavior, some users could use their increased free speech to shut opposing opinions down in inappropriate or harmful ways. This kind of manhandling of free speech would disrupt the balance between liberty and order, two values whose balance is fundamental to democracy. The internet is already a ruthless place, and, under Musk’s personal vision for Twitter, it seems we may serve to make it more cutthroat than it needs to be.

With respect to the social consequences of Musk’s purchase, the increased level of free speech that he seeks to promote could ultimately suppress the speech of Twitter’s most vulnerable users. A common theme established by various research projects spanning from 2018 to the present day is the idea that groups who do not receive adequate social support tend to withdraw from social media to protect themselves from online harassment.

These studies suggest that Musk’s version of Twitter — one with less censorship — would actually do the opposite of promoting free speech. In fact, it would specifically impact and prey on society’s most marginalized groups, since around three quarters of online hate victims are racial and ethnic minorities. In a full-circle way, this vision to decrease censorship works against many hallmarks of democracy by allowing harmful speech that specifically targets certain identities to exist freely online. 

The aforementioned social and political implications are warning signs that we must proceed with caution regarding Musk’s newly acquired Twitter. Social media can be a dangerous landscape that we must learn to navigate by finding a careful balance between free speech and hate speech.

A final source of concern for users regarding Musk’s new ownership of Twitter is his questionable use of the app in the past. Musk’s content has been problematic to the point that a top analyst at Twitter asked him to take a break from the app in an open letter. Musk did not comply.

His controversial Tweets have included lashing out at journalists, making disparaging comments about a rescue worker in Thailand and mocking various politicians, such as President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Additionally, in 2018, he was forced to step aside as chairman of Tesla for three years by the Securities and Exchange Commission for making false statements about Tesla on the app. These examples only scratch the surface of the many ways Musk has used Twitter in an unapologetically inflammatory manner.

Though I criticize Musk’s purchase of Twitter and his goals for the site, I view him as a brilliant man, and I do not doubt for a second that he will transform Twitter into a revolutionary and lasting social platform. What I don’t know is whether Musk’s Twitter revolution will be positive or overwhelmingly harmful. 

Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at annatrup@umich.edu.