SAN FRANCISCO — After Brianna Wu, a software engineer and game developer, was arrested in 2014 as part of a virulent campaign dubbed “gamergate‘ she worked with the company to develop tools to help eradicate misogyny, violence and disinformation online.
Today, she worries that all of that could be undone by Twitter’s new owner: Elon Musk, the richest man in the world who struck a deal to buy Twitter this week for around $44 billion.
Musk’s vow to protect freedom of speech while “unlocking” the company’s potential has raised alarm among those who, in some cases, have dedicated their careers to fighting the toxic and sometimes dangerous stream of misinformation and disinformation.
Though his exact plans remain unclear, they cite his promises to remove barriers to free speech, as well as his own record of provocative, sometimes offensive, statements on Twitter, among them vocation A British diver involved in the rescue of children who were a pedophile in a cave in Thailand in 2018.
“I think it’s just going to be an increasing free-for-all,” Ms. Wu said in a phone interview.
For Media Matters for America, the liberal-minded research organization, there was cause for concern in the solemn reactions of people who Twitter had banned from the platform for violating its code of conduct.
These include prominent Conservative figures such as Steve Bannon and MP Marjorie Taylor Green; the broadcaster Infowars; and even a QAnon character named “Clandestine” who helped spread it a Russian conspiracy theory about American biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine.
Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America, said that as the sole owner of Twitter, Mr. Musk would have the power to undo many of the efforts that have propelled the company to the forefront of social media companies if it is about restricting harmful or hateful content abuse.
In a tweet, he compared the acquisition of Mr. Musk to launching Fox News in the name of balancing what its founders, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, considered “liberal media.”
Though smaller than other platforms — with 217 million daily users compared to billions on Facebook and Instagram — Twitter’s moderation efforts had served as an example that activists like Mr. Carusone could point to when urging other companies to do more to curb dangerous misinformation.
“Do I think Elon Musk will be a front runner in tackling the issues of disinformation and rising extremism? No, I just don’t,” he said, adding, “I think there’s a very strong argument that there’s going to be a watering down of the policies that Twitter is putting in place.”
How Elon Musk bought Twitter
Musk’s fortune and celebrity – he is also behind Tesla and SpaceX – will give him a powerful pulpit in the fierce debates over the limits of free speech, which he called “the bedrock of a functioning democracy” in a statement Monday the purchase.
He may also face financial and political constraints such as a new law of the European Union Demanding that social media platforms clean their sites of misinformation and abuse. That might allay some of the heaven-fall fears surrounding its takeover.
At least one idea he floated, which is to publish the algorithms designed by the company, matches those put forward by people to reduce harmful content.
This includes, most notably, former President Barack Obama, who last week sketched a vision for Combating Disinformation at a conference at Stanford University that put algorithms under closer scrutiny and regulation.
“The real problem,” said Rachel Goodman, an attorney for Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit, “is that the way we share and advance knowledge and debate the central issues of our democracy are not dependent on it should be whether a single person is in control is a superhero or supervillain.”