The latest out of Elon’s wallet is $44 billion. Elon wants everyone to get a piece of his problems. He’s bought the social media giant and people’s diary Twitter. Okay, I’ll tone down the sarcasm.
Let’s go back in time. It’s 2017 – Elon has replied “How much is it?” to a user who suggested he buy it when Musk originally expressed his love for Twitter. Turns out it was a joke… for then. He wasn’t going to buy Twitter, was he?
Fast forward to the first quarter of 2022. In a TED interview in April, Elon said free speech was a "societal imperative for a functioning democracy". I agree with the line simply because I’m a hardcore free-speech advocate. In her book ‘The Friends of Voltaire’, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend till my death your right to say it”. This quote was written to reflect Voltaire’s principles, but it’s often miscredit to Voltaire and used as a phrase to describe the principle of free speech. Likewise, I'll defend free speech until the end of time.
One day before Twitter Inc. v Elon Musk’s trial was set to begin, Musk closed his buyout of the company for $44 billion at $54.20 per share, and Tweeted “the bird is freed”. Then, he merged Twitter Inc. with X Holdings I, Inc., Elon’s holdings company.
First things first, he fired CEO Parag Agarwal, CFO Ned Segal, and Vijaya Gadde, Head of Legal at Twitter. This allowed fresh air to rush in. Then, he proceeded to freeze its deployment pipelines. This meant that engineers weren’t allowed to modify Twitter’s public version anymore. Part of the reason behind this is because of the hardcore cultural shift Twitter was set to go through. Uncertain times were ahead.
After he put Twitter into read-only mode, Musk assumed his position as CEO or ‘Chief Twit’ and called his favourite engineers from Tesla and Neuralink to meet with top-tier Product Managers at Twitter and assess its codebase.
The Not-So-Good-Old Twitter
Twitter was always accused of being 'woke' by several media personalities and news outlets. While I don't label myself with an affiliation to the right-left political ideologies, I also shared a similar sentiment. In my mind, Twitter painted a balky picture of itself. It severely underperformed in its responsibilities of the removal of CSAM (Child Sexual Abuse Material), removal of spambots and protection of free speech on its platform.
But why free speech?
Progress depends on change. A developing society depends on the thought of the individuals who construct it. And if those individuals instead close the doors to their thoughts, would there be room for change and betterment? If you were to ask me a question: "Why are you so obsessed with free speech?", I could very well choose to be offended by it, thus putting a stop to our conversation. That would certainly disrupt your pursuit of knowing my truth, isn't it? To think, you must risk offence.
Next, let's opine about offensive speech or hate speech. How do you know what goes against your morals and what supports them? You know because you've heard it before. And you've put a descent time rationally thinking about it. If saying racial slurs is forever banned, and you haven't heard one, how would you know what's a racial slur and what isn't? How would one know what one must support and what one must oppose? I wouldn't know. I wouldn't have a sense of morality. The only way to expand your horizon and build your rationale and morality is to listen to different perspectives that represent a diverse range of thought. If speech is subjected to censorship, it'll slowly give birth to a totalitarian hell.
Coming back to Twitter - the company now genuinely promotes free speech. And it comes with a few buts too. Like, here is one of them:
But these are good buts. Some exploit free speech to spew hate speech, and the only solution to these problems is to deboost such content. You don't want to see a hate Tweet or a Tweet that incites violence in the Trending section.
After posting "Comedy is now legal on Twitter", Elon unsuspended The Babylon Bee [booted for satirically misgendering someone] and Jordan Peterson [who was booted for 'hateful conduct'].
Removal of CSAM
Twitter has been plagued with despicable CSAM for more than a decade now. Before Musk chimed in, it had accounts registered longer than 4 years prior, that actively engaged in the spread of child sexual abuse material and child pornography. As many as 95% of accounts sharing CSAM were created before Musk closed his Twitter deal. Ella Irwin, VP of Trust and Safety, Tweeted a reply to Jack Dorsey, that, at some point, nobody was working on combatting CSAM and funding was stopped.
(Note: CSE and CSAM are different phrases that essentially carry the same meaning: Child Sexual Abuse Material).
Almost 11 months later, we found out what the supposed CSAM funding was really allocated to:
During Mar-Apr 2022, Twitter was considering fabricating an OnlyFans alternative by enabling users to monetize adult content. They created a "Red Team" of 84 employees who were tasked to determine if introducing this feature would be safe and responsible on Twitter's part. In April 2022, the Red Team concluded their analysis by asserting "[...] Twitter cannot accurately detect child sexual exploitation and non-consensual nudity at scale [...]".
In one case, an offending Tweet, depicting CSAM, had more than 160,000 views and 2,000 retweets. Despite the gravity of the situation, Twitter reportedly refused to take down the abuse content. The minor victim who was captured in the video was allegedly on the brink of suicide.
Elon was shocked to learn about the issue upon offering his buyout. He articulated that fighting CSAM would the top priority on Twitter. The Daily Wire reported (December 13th, 2022) that under Twitter's old administration, CSAM was watched at least 10 million times. And it's safe to say that Twitter directly profited from these views because of advertisements displayed around those Tweets, like in any other Tweet.
Here's a Twitter thread by Andrea Stroppa, an independent researcher who collaborated with Twitter's Safety team. This thread provides valuable insight into the former administration's approach toward fighting the spread of CSAM:
Joanna Crider, a citizen journalist, co-hosted a Twitter Spaces discussion along with Ella Irwin (Current Lead, Twitter Safety) and Elon Musk. Their talk revolved around the subject of CSAM and their approach towards combatting it. Joanna also shared the text coverage of the Spaces discussion publically. You may access it using the below link:
Under the new administration, Twitter implemented more stringent policies to detect and remove CSAM from the platform. Here's an insight shared by Twitter Safety that exhibits data on CSAM account suspensions:
Although not very sufficient, but the data should be enough to tell a story. It reinforces the fact that Musk's stricter policies have had a more significant and positive impact on combatting CSAM.
For years now, Twitter has had a widespread spambot problem. These spambots engage in a wide range of activities, from crypto scams to 2FA frauds.
On December 1st, Elon announced he had begun to purge spambots:
A few days later, I wanted to test if spambots had reduced on the platform. To do so, I posted this Tweet:
This Tweet contains keywords that attract spambots, like "Instagram", "2FA", and "crypto". In the next hour, I received two replies from different accounts. It was clear by looking at the said profiles that those were spambots.
However, in the following hours, those replies vanished. I visited the links to accounts that posted these offending Tweets, which I took note of earlier, to see that they'd been suspended.
This further hardened my belief that Twitter had dealt a great deal with spambots.
While The Great Purge of Twitter Bots was going on, some legitimate accounts were also misidentified as bots and they automatically unfollowed some users from their following list. These cases were reported by some belonging to tech communities on Twitter, but I don't have a specific Tweet to refer to here. I think this one-time friendly fire could be acceptable, given the fact that Twitter was solving a bigger problem and something much bigger was at stake here.
The Twitter Files
One of the most important decisions that Elon has taken since his acquisition is the release of Twitter Files. The Twitter Files are a set of internal Twitter records, documents, chat screenshots, and emails among other things that reveal what has been going on behind the scenes at Twitter, from government collusion to censoring satire. This sets new transparency standards for tech companies to live up to. This is what transparency means, in its most transparent form (pun intended).
By releasing The Twitter Files, one thing had become clear to the world: you're shown what they want you to see. Anything else that doesn't align with their narrative was de-amplified or censored to the bottom of a bottomless pit.
Here are some of the released Twitter Files, stacked in one list:
Shadow banning of political Tweets and trending topics, especially those from the right-wing - thread.
Turmoil around de-platforming President Trump - thread.
Moderation of Tweets advocating the Jan 6 incident - thread.
Employees influencing Trump's ban - thread.
FBI policing election jokes on Twitter - thread.
Censoring of inconvenient to-the-government COVID information - thread.
Assisting US military's influential ops. - thread.
Community Notes is a crucial building block for protecting true speech. It adds notes that serve as additional context below Tweets. It doesn't apply to all Tweets, but typically popular or trending ones. This information isn't added by Twitter, it's added by people that represent diverse viewpoints. You can learn more about how Community Notes work, and more, on their official website: twitter.github.io/communitynotes.
Twitter has had a lot of new changes so far that have resulted in a better experience for me and other users. Some of the changes are:
Tweet impressions/view count to be visible to everyone.
Easily switch between "For You" and "Following" feed - rolled out.
Cashtags with data.
Removal of pointless Twitter client info.
Global availability of Community Notes.
I'm trying to minimize bias. Believe me.
But I'd rather a billionaire who combats CSAM than an incompetent leadership pushing victims of child sexual abuse to commit suicide.
Up until December, Twitter had been volatile with some changes it made. And those gave birth to controversies. Some changes have been downright disdainful.
Last month, Twitter introduced an absurd new policy that blocked all links to some rival social media platforms, two of the most prominent of them being Meta's Instagram and Twitter's FOSS & decentralized alternative, Mastodon.
This sounds familiar, as it strongly resonates with Microsoft of the 1990s - radical and anti-competitive.
The move was widely criticized and Twitter was quick enough to revoke the policy in less than 48 hours. Hours later, Musk proceeded to issue a public apology.
To be fair, we received a warning about things like these early on.
Good, so far. But what about the future?
Musk has stated that the following changes are expected to arrive on Twitter:
I wish that this happens, I sincerely do. Twitter is a great public town hall that has been the centre of conversation around issues political and non-political for years. Providing transparency and protecting free speech while welcoming opinions from a diverse range of people representing all kinds of backgrounds: left, right, and centre makes it even better.
Renewed focus on fighting CSAM makes it safer. The absence of malicious spambots makes it more reliable. Community Notes provide helpful context to Tweets, fighting spread of misinformation.
Twitter could also become the "everything app". They could copy what' WeChat's doing in China. Provide services like end-to-end encrypted chats, video calls, group calls, payments, nearby locations information (i.e. an alternative to Google Maps), selling and shopping, and a lot more that I'd need to scratch my head more to think of.
But again, Elon is only one single entity, and things must be regulated and distributed. As much as I agree with him on a lot of things, I'd still not trust him as one singular solution to the world's problems - even though he has proved to carry the potential for that.
Anyway, I must end the blog by writing this:
I'm excited to see what's next for Twitter. Hail free speech and citizen journalism.