Well, that was fast. In a week’s time we went from rumours that Tesla founder and billionaire Elon Musk was interested in buying Twitter to news of a deal worth US$44 billion that sees the world’s wealthiest man taking over the social media network.
Of course, a media and social networking frenzy ensued after the news broke. While the sale doesn’t actually take effect for months, it’s been story one for days. One of the biggest issues discussed is the topic of free speech, and what the monitoring and dissemination of so-called “misinformation” will now look like under Musk’s leadership.
Why? Because in addition to tweeting “Let’s make Twitter maximum fun!”, Musk has also said himself that he is dedicated to making free speech a priority on the platform. He also tweeted “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
What will free speech mean in a new Twitter?
In the Twitterverse, infosec and non-infosec people weighed in with a mix of trepidation, agitation, and confusion.
Some questioned exactly what free speech would mean should policies change. Would it mean that harassing and threat-filled content would no longer be reported and removed?
Lesley Carhart, a popular Twitter user who serves as director of incident response at the industrial cyber security company Dragos, and tweets under the handle @hacks4pancakes, noted “I don’t talk about this a lot. However, any move that makes vulnerable people more cavalierly accessible to consistent and targeted abuse is very concerning to me, and I’m definitely an advocate for free speech.”
Carhart, who noted she herself is often on the receiving end of threats and harassment also shared another tweet from Twitch user in which the user shows a visualisation of the harassment she recently received in the online gaming forum and it’s as awful as you might imagine.
In a retweet, Carhart added her own comment to the picture and said “what totally unrestricted speech turns out like on social media.”
Others simply lamented that the headlines of Musk’s purchase, and his near non-stop tweeting since news broke (Musk has always been an active Twitter user), would sully the tone of the network’s overall experience.
Eva Galperin, director of cyber security with EFF (@evacide) tweeted “I am filled with dread. My timeline is just going to be full of people commenting on every one of Elon's sh*tposts the way it was full of people commenting on that other guy's sh*tposts from 2016 through 2020, isn't it?”
And then others advocated for a wait-and-see attitude. Information security architect, author, and founder of the infosec community event QueerCon, Robert Walker (@TProphet) said, “To everyone saying "I don't like Elon so you can find me on $2022_equivalent_of_irc_channel_on_some_random_server" - there's a reason why irc died. Look, if Twitter gets wrecked we'll have to figure something else out but maybe we'll just get an edit button instead?”
Some questioned whether looser rules meant the network would become a forum for extremists who had previously been removed.
“A bunch of long-banned Nazis tried to start new accounts on Monday after the Elon Musk news broke. A lot of them got the boot within 24 hours,” tweeted Nick Martin, who authors The Informant, a publication that covers hate and extremism in the United States.
“Elon Musk doesn’t even own Twitter yet, but those guys and a lot of other extremists decided the water was warm and tried to take a dip anyway. It was a brief flurry of slurs, harassment and threats. But ultimately they took the L. I don't know what the future will be for Nazis and white supremacists on Twitter.”
Formation of US disinformation division
In tandem with the Musk news, Nina Jankowicz (@wiczipedia), a global fellow at the Wilson Center and an author whose research focuses on disinformation, announced she has been named executive director of the Department of Homeland Security's new Disinformation Governance Board.
“Cat's out of the bag: here's what I've been up to the past two months, and why I've been a bit quiet on here. Honoured to be serving in the Biden Administration @DHSgov and helping shape our counter-disinformation efforts,” she tweeted.
The news with met with plenty of enthusiasm and congratulations, as well as a lot of criticism by Twitter users who weighed in to call the effort unconstitutional, Orwellian, and even illegal. It will be interesting what Twitter looks like under Musk’s leadership, but the end result is difficult to determine now amid all of the buzz.
Newsman Dan Rather (@DanRather) tweeted that with or without the network, we will always find a means to voice our opinions.
“I stop scrolling, look up from my phone, and out the window. I see a complicated but beautiful world. It’s still going to be there no matter who owns Twitter. And we'll continue to find ways to live in it, talk about it, and share with each other our thoughts, fears, and dreams.”