Will Elon Musk’s changes to Twitter propagate fake news?

It was announced on Monday that Elon Musk purchased Twitter for $44 billion (£34 billion). This takeover doesn’t come as a surprise, as Musk’s earlier move to take up a seat on the platform’s board suggested a potential buyout.

Before his offer was accepted, the Tesla CEO indicated there would be a major revamp of the social networking site, making it more conducive to free speech – this being the main reason for his purchase.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” Musk said. “And Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

However, many people – including Twitter employees – have voiced their concern that changes made to the site could lead to a higher level of misinformation and hate speech.

As a result, Twitter Executives have blocked the site’s developers from being able to make changes to the platform, preventing the site from being sabotaged.

A barrage of celebrities, including Cate Blanchett and Jameela Jamil, have also voiced concern about the platform relaxing its moderation policies.

The rise of fake news and misinformation

Recent years – particularly during the Trump presidency and over the pandemic – have seen the rise of false news circulating online, especially through social media.

In 2016, Donald Trump normalised the phrase ‘fake news’ to illustrate misinformation or news he didn’t agree with. Studies show that at this point, trust in media outlets in the US were at an all-time low. Famously, Trump was banned from Twitter after breaching the site’s rules.

Many users now worry that relaxed regulations would invite Trump to re-join the platform.

The influence of fake news on Twitter and during the Trump presidency was profound. In a study of 30 million tweets in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election, it was found that 25% of tweets were spreading deceptive, grossly distorted, or extremely biased news.

Following this, the pandemic had a significant impact on the amount of fake news being distributed. The abundance of information online about COVID-19, and the uncertainty of the pandemic, caused false news and distrust to spread quickly over the course of the crisis.

In a report commissioned by Ofcom, in the first week of the UK lockdown almost half (49%) of individuals used social media to access news and information about COVID-19. Within this, 46% of participants stated they had seen false or misleading information.

These experiences may indicate that a less regulated Twitter platform won’t help curtail the spread of misinformation, but could end up generating more.

Would Musk’s changes propagate fake news?

The future of Twitter seems uncertain and with the possibility of less regulation on the site, the current situation begs the question – will Musk’s takeover create more fake news?

Despite having fewer users than Facebook, Twitter circulates news quickly and gained popularity for letting users have direct contact with public figures, as well as letting these figures speak directly to the public. In fact, Musk used Twitter to ask his followers directly their opinion on the future of the site.

Intentions to make Twitter less restrictive arguably comes as a reaction to increased regulation seen on the platform in recent years.

The increased levels of fake news and hate-speech over the Trump presidency and pandemic caused a heightened degree of regulation on the platform, including banning users, labelling misleading content, and deleting posts.

In the first half of 2021, Twitter removed 5.9 million tweets compared to 1.9 million in the previous year. But whether the platform’s future changes will propagate fake news is unclear.

Musk has hinted at the possibility of an edit button being introduced to the platform, allowing users to edit their tweets. This may prove problematic, as users disseminating fake or false information could edit their original posts and might not be held accountable. Alternatively, an edit button could allow people to edit information they realise is false at a later date.

Dr. Gordon Fletcher, a technology and retail expert at the University of Salford Business School, commented on the prospect of an edit button: “Where Twitter heads with Musk is already emerging. His desire to add an ‘edit’ button may sound commendable but this addition will change the core of Twitter’s value. Being able to edit a tweet destabilises Twitter so that it is no longer the social media of record.

“Each tweet becomes unstable and can be altered at any point and unpredictably. Traditional media outlets will be less inclined to embed the tweet in their own online stories (as is currently common practice) and will seek other competing sources more willingly.

“Journalists and academics will be less inclined to cite Twitter as there could be no future evidence of this primary data. The impact is significant, and Musk will need to carve a new purpose for Twitter if this change does go ahead.

“Musk is a new era for Twitter but like all good science fiction stories, it will be a disturbing mix of utopia and dystopia.

“Three years ago Musk tweeted that “My Twitter is pretty much complete nonsense at this point”. Two years ago one tweet from Musk managed to slice significant value off his own Tesla company.

“More recent tweets have boosted individual cryptocurrencies and revealed Musk’s sometimes chaotic political viewpoint as well as an obsession with space travel.” Fletcher concluded.

Musk has also said a potential change would be to make Twitter’s algorithm open-source.

In a Ted Talk this month, Musk said the algorithm that determines how tweets are promoted could be uploaded to a hosting platform, opening it up for anyone outside of the company to see. “People can look through it and say, ‘Oh, I see a problem here, I don’t agree with this,’” said Musk. “They can highlight issues and suggest changes, in the same way that you update Linux or Signal.”

Some believe that open access to the inner-workings of the platform could reveal political bias coded into the site, stating that it currently blocks conservative perspectives over left ideas.

If algorithms do see a change, this may lead to fake news that would have otherwise been below the surface coming into light. But an open-source algorithm could deter “behind the scenes manipulation” and propaganda on the site, something that Facebook has been accused of in the past.

Additionally, Musk doesn’t want permanent bans on the platform but wants people to be put in “timeouts” – meaning that Donald Trump could return to Twitter.

The Tesla and Space-X CEO has also said a main priority of his takeover will be to authenticate all “real humans” and get rid of “spam and scam bot armies that are on Twitter”.

This move is likely related to Musk’s shares in the cryptocurrency Dogecoin. Twitter has been a spot for cryptocurrency scams, where fake Twitter accounts have impersonated celebrities in the cryptocurrency market.

This is where the real issue may lie. Elon Musk has other commercial interests and we could see conflicts of interest emerging as he is challenged to make decisions for Twitter that aren’t influenced by his stakes in Tesla and Space-X.

We will have to wait and see whether these changes influence the creation and distribution of fake news. In spite of Musk’s desires to reshape the platform, the European Union has warned Musk that his new Twitter must comply with the EU’s digital rules, or he risks facing a large fine.

Thierry Breton, the EU Commissioner, said he wanted to give Musk a “reality check”.

“Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules – regardless of their shareholding,” Breton said.

Industry Reactions

Dan Lane, Senior Analyst at Freetrade, fears that Musk’s purchase will be influenced by his other commitments: “Elon can resurrect that ‘funding secured’ tweet. It might not get that many wry smiles in the Tesla camp this time though.

“Musk’s attention is bound to be split here. Given the fairly unclear synergies between Tesla and Twitter that EV fans will be looking out for, they’ll likely feel they got a raw deal. With no obvious value-add for them, they can only lose part of Musk’s focus and gain nothing for now.

“That’s bad news because Tesla needs absolutely no distractions now. Yes, it’s the leader in the space by far but the incumbents really are catching up.

“And at what feels like an inflection point, with the war in Ukraine bringing into sharp view the need to push further into renewables, Musk could be about to instead leap into the biggest vanity project the world has ever seen.

“Away from grand ideas about promoting free speech, what Musk actually sees is a special situation here, in much the same way as any other value-minded investor. But it will take time, resources and a learning curve before he can enact any serious plans he has in mind and, crucially, unlock any hidden value.

“Then there is the cultural chasm between working at Tesla and Twitter. Will Musk’s new employees buy into the plans? Have they been waiting for a new direction or will the reception be as hostile as the bid?

“The point here is the market doesn’t quite know if it’s arrogance leading the way or genius. Musk flits between both regularly, let’s see which one this is and if taking his eye off the Tesla ball for a while is worth it.”

Krisztian Gatonyi, Senior Analyst at Broker Chooser, thinks penalties proportional to the networth of users should be introduced on Twitter: “Musk had questioned Twitter’s commitment to free speech many times. On the other hand, he has often blocked his critics on Twitter, which goes counter to his “free speech” argument. As an owner, he will now be able to silence them.

“Elon Musk used Twitter in a way that led to several run-ins with the Securities and Exchange Commission, including when he tweeted in 2018 that he would take Tesla private at $420 (£336) a share and had “funding secured” to do so. These types of sensitive posts can move markets, which is penalised by the SEC.

“Social media usage continues to grow and Twitter is a popular platform because its users are forced to communicate in a straightforward and concise manner, using only 280 characters at a time.

“Musk is committed to free speech on social media, so he will push Twitter in this direction. On the other hand, he will stick to his role of financial influencer and his main topics will probably remain Tesla and SpaceX, while he will share his thoughts on other issues, such as Bitcoin and NFTs.

“Elon Musk is the eighth-most followed person on Twitter and probably will move up on the list as the owner of Twitter. He can move markets by tweeting about financial products, so it will be interesting to see how the SEC handles it in the future. My belief is that penalties should be proportional to total net worth in order to have a real impact.

“After Musk announced his investment decision publicly, Twitter’s share price increased more than 25% while Tesla decreased almost 20%. Twitter accepted Musk’s offer two days before publishing its quarterly report – maybe this is not a coincidence. I think the stock market is in a bubble and the pin that will burst it may be the Fed’s tightening cycle.”