In a submission to the SEC this Monday following the acceptance of Elon Musk’s offer to buy the company, among the potential risks, Twitter included “the possibility of our current employees being distracted and resulting in a drop in productivity due to uncertainty about the merger.” it was said that current employees may also be distracted (and potential employees repelled) by Musk’s own behavior on Twitter after the deal was announced.
Last week, Musk retweeted a post criticizing one of Twitter’s key executives. Many of his followers responded by attacking the executive branch with racist and sexist tweets. This was not an unexpected development: last year, for example, after Musk tweeted criticism of appointing a particular professor as an adviser to the National Road Safety Association, his followers also targeted her with personal and sexist attacks – after which she deactivated her account. on Twitter.
Musk now says he would like “a much larger percentage of the country to be on Twitter, to engage in dialogue” and that he would like the platform to be “as broadly inclusive as possible.”
While he still can’t change Twitter’s content moderation policies, there is something he can do immediately to promote that goal. He could tell his followers not to react with personal and inappropriate attacks on people with whom they (or he) disagree.
Musk has nearly 88 million followers on Twitter. Some reports claim that about half of them are “fake” (ie spam, bots, etc.) – but that will still leave 44 million real people paying attention to what he tweets. (not to mention all the millions who read articles in the media, like this one, about what he says and does on Twitter). What responsibilities come with the great power to reach tens of millions of people instantly, many of whom have the ability to instantly connect with people you criticize?
Even if Musk did not intend to unleash a wave of trolling against certain people, he knows that this has happened many times. One thing he did not do, however, was simply ask his followers not to do so. Imagine if, after he tweeted critically about the CEO of Twitter and her account was flooded with harassment and hatred, he would tweet again to point out that she deserves respect, that she has a complicated and difficult job and that she beats people ( even if you do not agree with their decisions) is not a way to productively ‘engage in dialogue’.
Will his followers listen? What if he said this several times, entering into a dialogue with tens of millions of people who have chosen to follow him? If he had to persuade some of them to reduce their personal harassment of other Twitter users, Twitter would be a better place for more people to join the conversation. And perhaps fewer employees would also consider leaving.
Of course, Musk himself is known for his own lure and tweets with personal attacks. But now he’s in a different position than he was a few weeks ago, and he’s made some claims about what Twitter would like to be under his leadership. It still can’t change the platform’s content moderation policies, but it can change its own. And what if he never tells his followers to back off when his tweets generate waves of attacks? Then this is also a kind of statement – one that is in direct conflict with the goals of promoting free and constructive speech on an inclusive platform.
Irina Raiku is the director of the Internet Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Santa Clara.