It’s official; Elon Musk has bought Twitter. The $44 billion takeover deal agreed on Monday, comes just two weeks after the world’s richest man rejected the offer of a board seat and submitted his own bid for the social media giant.

What’s the Deal with the Twitter Deal?

The speed at which it has unfolded has surprised everyone — including probably Musk himself. After all, for much of the process it’s been hard to tell if the Tesla founder has been joking. From his suggestion that the company remove the letter ‘w’ from its name to inserting a weed reference into the SEC filings for his official bid, the practical joker had us guessing.

What Musk plans to do with his new toy is still far from clear. In a statement posted shortly after the deal was agreed, he reiterated his focus on ‘free speech’ — pledging to unlock the company’s potential with the following statement:

‘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.

I … want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans’.

Worryingly, these early statements show Musk has a severe lack of understanding of the platform he has just spent a considerable fortune on.

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes on Twitter will know that ‘matters vital to the future of humanity’ are far from the main topic of conversation. But describing it as a digital town square where free speech is sacrosanct is also a huge mischaracterisation.

Tracking Free Speech is Tricky

Social media platforms can never be neutral spaces. Content on these sites is always moderated and curated, either consciously through removing illegal and harmful content or automatically through recommender algorithms which promote some posts whilst side-lining others.

Content moderation is not optional for social media platforms. Those that try to live without it are quickly overrun by spam, bot posts, pornography and hate speech. Over the past year, conservative social media start-ups like GETTR and Donald Trump’s Truth Social — which marketed themselves as anything-goes spaces for free speech — have found this out the hard way.

GETTR, especially, has struggled. Within weeks of launching the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’, it was flooded with explicit content featuring Sonic the Hedgehog before, more seriously, being infiltrated by ISIS and used to spread propaganda.

Making Twitter’s recommendation algorithms open to the public is another idea that sounds good written on the back of a napkin, but quickly presents its own problems.

Information scientist Dr Casey Fiesler has suggested that in order to understand why these algorithms make the recommendations they do, Musk would also have to release the underlying user data that they use to make decisions, presenting ‘massive privacy concerns’.

Additionally, making Twitter’s inner workings publicly available will probably most benefit scammers and bot farms, who will use it to game Twitter’s recommendation system and flood newsfeeds with spam — making Musk’s pledge to ‘defeat the spam bots’ even harder.

As for Musk’s aim to ‘authenticate all humans’, this could open an even bigger can of worms. It is not completely clear what he means by this, but most commentators have seen it as a pledge to limit the number of anonymous accounts on the site and require users to authenticate their identities.

While this might stop some of the anonymous harassment and pile-ons that the site has become notorious for, there are plenty of people on Twitter who have good reasons for being anonymous.

LGBTQ people who have not come out publicly, dissidents and activists living under authoritarian regimes, researchers and journalists reporting on far-right activity — all would risk harassment and worse if their identities were to be made public. What happens to them when, inevitably, that data gets hacked?

Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mr Musk

Even the promise of new features is not without potential headaches. The one that Elon Musk has shown the most interest in is an edit button; a much-requested update that Twitter has confirmed it is working on.

Whilst it seems uncontroversial, a tool to edit tweets would give scammers and disinformation artists the ability to rack up tens of thousands of likes on uncontroversial posts, before changing them to include harmful content once they go viral.

It’s a tactic Facebook has struggled to deal with, and it could have a devastating impact on a site like Twitter, where a tweet can spread astonishingly quickly.

Elon Musk does not yet seem to have grasped many of these complexities. If he wants to change Twitter then he will need to master its trappings, fast. Every new feature or slight tweak that a platform introduces brings with it a million ways in which it can backfire horribly.

The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that Musk’s plan to limit content moderation on Twitter comes at a time when many western governments are moving in the opposite direction.

The European Union’s recently-passed Digital Services Act, for example, will impose legal obligations on social media platforms to remove dangerous material. It will also force tech giants to submit to far greater regulatory scrutiny over how they handle disinformation and hate speech on their platforms.

Meanwhile, the British government is currently pushing its flagship Online Safety Bill through Parliament. Although it has been criticised by experts as vague and confused, the bill still introduces tough new rules requiring social media platforms to take action over illegal and ‘legal but harmful’ disinformation and abuse.

Those that fail to do so will face fines of up to 10 per cent of their global revenue and even risk being blocked from operating in the UK.

Both governments have already fired warning shots over Musk’s takeover of Twitter. ‘Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules — regardless of their shareholding’, said Thierry Breton, commissioner for the EU’s internal market.

A spokesperson for Boris Johnson, meanwhile, told the BBC that ‘regardless of ownership, all social media platforms must be responsible’.

Tougher regulation for the social media giants has been a long time coming. But whilst Musk may revel in the very public and sensationalist manner of this takeover, there is no doubt that it has painted a huge target on Twitter’s back.

The regulatory scrutiny he will face as he attempts to remake the site will be intense. Elon Musk may quickly find that he has bought himself the world’s most expensive Gordian Knot. The challenges he and Twitter will face over the next few years will make sending humans to Mars look easy.

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