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Optimistic Speculation on What Elon Musk Might Do With Twitter

Elon Musk is a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” which leads some to worry that Twitter will be open to the sort of thing one finds at gab.com if his purchase of the company is completed. I have no idea what Musk plans to do with Twitter but let me offer some optimistic speculation.

For a start, I don’t believe Musk will use Twitter to advance right-wing candidates or policy. He recently tweeted “I strongly supported Obama for President, but today’s Democratic Party has been hijacked by extremists.” He also tweeted a cartoon showing him not changing his views since he supported President Obama in 2008 while the left and right have diverged. Don’t forget that Musk (and many others) resigned from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council and Strategic and Policy Forum shortly after they were formed.

Musk sounds more like a pro-Obama centrist than a right-wing extremist.

The algorithms

Musk has said he wants “to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spambots, and authenticating all humans.” I am all for defeating spambots and authenticating (not “identifying”) humans, but open sourcing the algorithms that rapidly decide which tweets to present to a given user is insufficient. The goal, the objective function, of current social media algorithms is to increase engagement and therefore advertising revenue and that has had catastrophic side effects.

In the early 1990s, the US National Science Foundation Network, which was central to the nascent global Internet, had a policy limiting acceptable use to supporting open research and education. Most of us were naive when that policy was phased out, but by 2011, when Eli Pariser published The Filter Bubble, the danger of an Internet financed by personalized advertising was becoming clear, and terrorists were using the Internet for operations and recruiting. In 2014 Aljazeera was asking whether Facebook was amplifying hate speech and violence against the Rohingya and there was evidence of Russia hacking US elections as early as 2008. That was nothing compared to subsequent presidential elections or Russia’s Ukraine war propaganda.

The objective function of today’s social media algorithms must be changed—for example, by adding goals like reducing political division or increasing voter participation rate. This is an ill-defined, challenging problem, but that is nothing new for Musk. It would also reduce Twitter’s revenue and Musk is a businessman, but he is motivated by more than increasing profit and shareholder value.

Musk has the technical skill in his current companies to implement and maintain Twitter algorithms. One of his companies, Neuralink, is working on understanding the brain and SpaceX satellites and Tesla cars rapidly process large amounts of data to make decisions to avoid collisions. He and his employees are well versed in decision-making technology, but he will need people with backgrounds in marketing, social science, and politics to revise the algorithms to incorporate social goals.

Musk is a manufacturing and design genius and a manager with an unprecedented span of control who is nevertheless deeply involved in project details (as illustrated in this interview), but he lacks the temperament and judgment to revise the Twitter algorithms. (He has described himself as autistic and is prone to unrealistic predictions and sophomoric tweets).

Musk needs trusted advisors if he plans to revise the Twitter algorithms. How about President Obama? He would bring empathy, wisdom, and political skill to the project and, as evidenced in a recent talk at Stanford University, he understands the problems with today’s social media algorithms and considers them to be a threat to democracy as well as causing more concrete damage like killing people by spreading COVID misinformation.

Musk and Obama have complementary skills, and if social media can be modified and saved, I can’t think of a better team than them to do it. If Musk is unwilling or unable to engage President Obama as an advisor, how about a podcast like the one Obama did with Bruce Springsteen? Coming back to reality—Musk should at least invite Obama to visit Twitter and give a talk to and engage with the Twitter staff.

Update May 7, 2022:

I learned something after writing this post that has increased my optimism.

Twitter has a company-wide initiative called Responsible Machine Learning (ML), based on the belief that “responsible technological use includes studying the effects it can have over time” and the fact that with hundreds of millions of Tweets per day Twitter’s design can have unintended consequences.

The Machine Learning, Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability (META) group is responsible for understanding the impact of ML decisions and applying what they learn to improve Twitter. In 2021, Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey and the board of directors made responsible ML one of Twitter’s main priorities. META group funding was increased, and prominent researchers were hired. They have access to Twitter’s data, the decision-making algorithms, and the people who design them.

But, isn’t Elon Musk a “free speech absolutist?”

Yes, he tweeted that, but how much thought went into the tweet, and what exactly does he mean by it? I don’t know, but I do know that Musk is iconoclastic and willing to question himself. When speaking or being interviewed, he seems at times to pause, to debate with himself before making a statement or giving an answer. During a recent in-depth interview, he listed his engineering principles, beginning with a recognition that “Everyone’s wrong. No matter who you are, everyone is wrong some of the time.”

I can’t think of any team better qualified to mitigate social media dysfunction than Twitter’s META group, the technicians with access to the current algorithms and data, and Elon Musk. (And maybe President Obama).

Finally, here is a little more optimistic speculation:

Jack Dorsey:

  • Called Musk “the singular solution he trusts”.

Bill Gates:

  • “You wouldn’t want to underestimate Elon. What he did at Tesla is amazing, helping with climate change, what he did at SpaceX ...”
  • “I don’t know specifically what he’ll do, but there’s an opportunity, and we need innovation in that space.”

Elon Musk:

  • “The goal that I have, should everything come to fruition with Twitter, is to have a service that is as broadly inclusive as possible, where ideally most of America is on it and talking.”
  • “I don’t care about economics at all.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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