You would be forgiven for growing numb to the almost daily assault of headlines proclaiming the latest stunning development involving Elon Musk’s tenure as owner and manager of Twitter. The microblogging platform has seen a rise in hate speech and technical problems as media reports say up to 75% of the staff has been cut since he took over.
In December 2022, unsettling news about Twitter included the disbanding of the company’s Trust and Safety Council, the conspiracy theories and score settling of the “Twitter Files,” QAnon’s Musk-inspired revival, the suspension of the Twitter accounts of journalists covering the company, and a brief ban on links to rival social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Mastodon.
Beneath these headlines lie crucial questions about the nature, role and state of social media in society. Prompted by Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, The Conversation published several articles exploring these issues. These articles from our archive look at the effects of content management, the dangers of COVID-19 misinformation, Twitter’s underappreciated nature as a data source, Black Twitter’s vital role in social justice movements, and the difficulties of starting over in a post-Twitter world.
1. Free speech, bias and manipulation
Among Musk’s stated motivations for buying Twitter was to address his claim that the platform was biased against figures on the right. Musk did not offer any data to support this.
Twitter’s own researchers, who had access to data not available outside the company, found that the opposite is the case – the platform is biased in favor of right-leaning voices.
Musk said at the time he made his bid for the company that he intended to make Twitter a platform for free speech, and that free speech on Twitter was being stifled by excessive content moderation.
Again, research shows that the opposite is the case. To the extent that Twitter is an arena for free speech, it is an arena that is readily manipulated. “Astroturf” causes, trolling and misinformation are facilitated by bots and malicious users that appear to be the digital equivalent of crowds gathering around fabricated outrage.
Indiana University social media researcher Filippo Menczer has found that this manipulation has become sophisticated, with coordinated networks of users and bots manipulating Twitter’s algorithms to artificially increase or decrease the popularity of content. Twitter has attempted to rein in this abuse in recent years through content moderation, and weakening these moderation policies “may make abuse rampant again,” he wrote.
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Elon Musk is wrong: Research shows content rules on Twitter help preserve free speech from bots and other manipulation
2. Medical misinformation unbound
In November 2022, Twitter quietly posted notice that it would no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation. Fighting medical…