On April 25, Elon Musk made a deal to buy Twitter for a cool $44 billion. The richest man in the world has made promises about big changes for the platform, citing free speech as his incentive to loosen up the rules around what type of content is posted.
The “free speech absolutist” has some people excited. But it has many others concerned that, you know, an erratic billionaire who already wields a disproportionate amount of power is now in control of a social network with roughly 200 million daily users.
Parents are especially concerned about what changes might mean for their social media-using kids. Will big changes in regulations and policy make it a more dangerous place for kids to have accounts? Will there be more misinformation or extremist information? Will Twitter for teens and tweens be a good idea at all?
Musk wants to allow all content as long as it is not illegal
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in a statement announcing the deal. “Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
So what does this actually look like? During the Ted2022 conference, Musk called Twitter the “de facto town square,” which to him makes it important that users have both “the reality and the perception that uh, they’re able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
Twitter currently bans harassment and abuse, and also suspends accounts that are suspected to be spam bots or spreading misinformation, especially in the wake of Covid-19. This type of content, in theory, would all be allowed on Musk’s Twitter.
During the same TedTalk, Musk said, "If it's a gray area, let the tweet exist” and would “err on the side” of keeping a controversial tweet up — unless Musk doesn’t like it. Right now, 19-year-old Jack Sweeney, who runs the Twitter account Elon Musk’s Jet, is refusing to take down the account despite Musk’s offer of $5,000. It’s unclear what move Musk will make once the takeover is final.
Prior to the official buyout, Musk said he hoped that even his "worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means."
This has set off alarms for many, especially parents who have dealt with issues like cyber bullying.
While the idea of no moderation (with the exception of content that breaks the law, such as inciting violence, and explicit hate speech) has Musk stans super stoked, the reality of these looser moderation parameters can be dangerous for teens on the platform.
According to Statista, 36.5% of U.S. middle schoolers and high schoolers reported being victims of bullying in 2020. Those numbers have seemingly increased, especially in the wake of blended and remote learning throughout the pandemic.
The good news is that Twitter isn’t super hip with the teens — at least for the moment. Twitter’s most common age group is 25-34 years old, comprising 38.5% of the users. Only 6.6% of the users are in the 13-17-year-old age group.
With these numbers, however, it is important to note that Twitter does not currently have a hard-to-bypass sign-up for users of any age, and it is easy to lie about it in order to get an account.
He wants to make the Twitter account verification process more thorough
This is one of Musk’s less controversial proposed changes to Twitter, and it is mostly fueled by the fact spam bots are the bane of this billionaire’s existence. However, Musks’ disdain for spam could be helpful in a way, as it would make it more difficult for children under the age of 13 (the age you must be to use Twitter) to sign up with fake or anonymous accounts.
It would also help in the event that a teen was being cyber-bullied, the bully in question wouldn’t be able to hide behind a fake account. Teens could be held accountable for digital harassment.
Still, wouldn’t it be easier if there was just, you know, less cyber-bullying in the form of a human-moderated platform instead of risking the mental health of teens?
Musk wants to add an edit button
This is a feature that many Twitter users (myself included) have requested. Will this have a direct impact on kiddos on the bird app? Not likely, since they too make typos.
He wants to move Twitter away from ads and to a subscription model
Musk really, really dislikes spam. Promoted material is decidedly not his thing, and he doesn’t want it to be Twitter’s thing, either. In addition to making the verification process to join Twitter more robust, Musk has proposed eliminating ads and moving towards a subscription model.
This has a lot of implications, and for many reasons that require a deep dive, simply will not work. In the past, platforms have played with the idea of moving to a subscription model, only to lose massive amounts of their users. Many people want a free platform — and, if Musk were truly a “free speech absolutist,” he wouldn’t be thinking about potentially cutting off access for those who couldn’t afford it but still want to make noise in the proverbial town square.
For kids, this would simply just present another hurdle in signing up for Twitter. In that way, it could be viewed as useful in keeping kids off the 13 and up platform. But the reality of a truly private platform with the idea of free speech in mind is oxymoronic.
Musk wants to make Twitter’s algorithm open source
This is another feature that many are excited about. When an algorithm is open source, it means anyone can take a gander as to how their Twitter feed is curated. Again, in theory, this seems like a good idea. Algorithms dictate an unholy amount of our lives, and anything that promotes literacy surrounding them is usually good in my book.
However, there’s a reason other sites like Reddit and Google don’t have open source algorithms, and it’s not strictly for intellectual property reasons.
I, for example, am a tech nerd. I would easily be able to hop on Github (where Musk has proposed to host the open source material) and interpret the data. For many, looking at raw data would be like trying to read a foreign, highly technical language.
The people who are able to interpret this, like coders and fellow nerds, could use the information in bad faith to “game” the system and say, target kids with addictive algorithms like TikTok and Instagram knowingly did.
Musk’s proposal to show everyone how the sausage gets made isn’t so much a move of transparency as it is a power shift in who is able to control the digital narrative.
Musk is simply repeating history
Musk is far from the first Silicon Valley Bro to champion free speech. In 2011, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote that “tweets should go with the flow,” while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said that he “believe[s] in giving people a voice” in 2019, effectively absolving himself from the massive role his platform played in promoting political posts without fact-checking them during the 2016 election. Both ended up instilling stricter content moderation policies down the line.
So, yes, it might be a bumpy ride (to say at the least) for anyone navigating Twitter once the Musk takeover is complete, whether you are a teen or tween or a grown ass adult. Chances are Musk will have no choice but to reinstate some modicum of moderation in order to keep the platform alive.