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Elon Musk has a plan for Twitter. It may scare away users and advertisers.

The billionaire wants to trim down Twitter's rules around speech if he can buy the company, but experts said Musk may lack social media expertise.
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Billionaire magnate Elon Musk has made a fortune from tech, but he's never run a company like Twitter.

This week it showed, experts said.

Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, spoke for the first time Thursday about his $40 billion bid to take control of the social media company, and he gave few specific details of any plans he might have, despite being full of his usual swagger on topics such as electric cars and rocket science.

At the TED2022 conference, Musk spoke in general terms about allowing more content to go unmoderated on the platform in the name of free speech — a change that could allow more hate speech and harassment to flourish — and didn't address core business concerns such as user growth or advertising revenue.

Experts warned that Musk's vision for the platform, should he successfully acquire the company, could lead to major hurdles down the road.

How Musk might lead Twitter

Musk's lack of experience in the worlds of advertising and social media stuck out to some analysts.

"He doesn't seem to have a sophisticated notion of what it means to engage in a global media business," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of a book about Facebook and the director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia.

"He's never been in this business. He’s been in a scattershot of businesses that have nothing to do with media or communication," Vaidhyanathan said.

Musk has built a loyal fan base on Twitter. His account is one of the most-watched with 82 million followers, just behind singer Lady Gaga and just ahead of Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India.

But that doesn’t mean he knows much about drumming up ad dollars or attracting new people to Twitter. And that lack of experience could be a headwind for him as he tries to persuade Twitter's shareholders and directors to accept his bid.

Neither Tesla nor SpaceX, nor Musk’s earlier enterprises such as PayPal, has significant money-making operations in ad sales. Tesla doesn’t even spend much on advertising.

"I think if Elon takes over Twitter, he is in for a world of pain. He has no idea," Yishan Wong, a former CEO of Reddit, said in a series of tweets Friday.

He said Musk, 50, may be influenced by the internet culture of an earlier era, when fewer people were online and tech company CEOs weren't being asked to referee major political debates or make world-shifting content moderation decisions — like whether or not to ban a sitting president from the platform.

Musk could scare advertisers

On Friday, Musk's takeover chances grew slimmer when Twitter's board unanimously adopted a poison-pill defense, allowing shareholders to buy more stock at a discount which could force Musk to pay an even higher price to take over the company. Still, a pathway to purchasing Twitter is open to Musk if he can afford it, and he has expressed serious interest.

At the conference Thursday, Musk said he would err on the side of leaving up some of the content that Twitter now takes down because it says the content violates its terms of service.

"If it's a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist," he said.

But that's not necessarily how big corporate advertisers think, and they have been a not-so-secret force in recent years pushing social media apps to clean up the content generated by users. In 2020, more than 200 companies participated in a boycott of Facebook, pausing their ad spending and citing concerns about hate speech and misinformation.

"No advertisers want to have their message in the same timeline as anti-Semitism or violence again women. That’s just bad business," Vaidhyanathan said.

So now, the advertising industry is wary of Musk’s proposal to loosen speech rules on Twitter, according to Mike Zaneis, co-founder of the Brand Safety Institute, a nonprofit organization of digital advertisers concerned about objectionable material online. 

"This topic certainly has been top of mind for marketers over the past few days," said Zaneis.

"Nobody wants to go back to the Wild, Wild West," he said, referring to a time when forums and social media platforms had little-to-no content moderation. "It was painful. It was harmful to brands. It was harmful to citizens. We’ve made incredible strides, and I think a reversal would be unfortunate." 

Musk seems well aware of that influence, and has criticized it.

"The power of corporations to dictate policy is greatly enhanced if Twitter depends on advertising money to survive," Musk said this month in a tweet that was later deleted.

How to encourage free expression

Some experts panned Musk's ideas as unrealistic for reasons unrelated to advertising, including that unchecked online harassment and bullying might drive away users and end up harming free expression.

"The idea that rewriting the rules would free up this suppressed speech — that's essentially a fantasy," said Suzanne Nossel, a member of the Oversight Board created by Facebook to oversee speech rules on its services.

"The inevitability is that the boundary-less platform, where there are no limitations, would quickly sink down under the weight of spam, harassment, disinformation and falsehoods," said Nossel, also the CEO of the free-speech organization PEN America.

Social networks founded recently on the idea of looser speech rules, such as Parler and Truth Social, have inevitably written their own community guidelines and developed ways to take down at least some content.

"It may simply be that when networks grow past a certain size, they become unmanageable," Renée DiResta, the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, wrote in The Atlantic.

There are also daunting regulatory and legal challenges around free speech online, especially outside the United States where public expectations of what's allowed aren't shaped as much by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The European Union, for example, is poised to enact a new law called the Digital Services Act, which would require tech companies to catch certain content deemed problematic in real-time and may lead to more filtering of speech, not less.

At least in the E.U., "you're going to have to put in place systems that control the amplification of illegal speech, and then you're going to have independent audits and the regulators are going to be watching," said Karen Kornbluh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports stronger ties between the U.S. and Europe.

Speech rules are even more onerous in countries such as Pakistan and Turkey.

While Musk said he would intend for Twitter's rules to hew closely to the law, Kornbluh said he may not have a full understanding of the complexities of that project. "His comments are a little bit naïve of the changing regulatory system," Kornbluh said.