In order to emphasize the company's commitment to free expression, a Twitter executive called it "the free speechwing of the party" a decade ago. The moniker was put to the test by subsequent events, when repressive regimes clamped down on Twitter users, especially in the wake the "Arab Spring", which saw a short-lived demonstration. A 2014 article written by Amanda Hess, a journalist in the U.S., exposed the constant, cruel harassment that many women suffered for simply posting on Twitter and other online forums.
Twitter has learned many things over the years about the implications of operating a largely unmoderated social network. One of these is that companies don't want to run ads against violence, hate speech, incitement, or misinformation that seeks to undermine elections or harm public health.
Paul Barrett, deputy director at the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, stated that Musk's posturing of free speech -- leave everything up -- would be a problem in and of its own. "If you stopped moderating with automated system and human reviews, a website like Twitter, within a short time period, you would have an infernal cesspool."
Barrett said that Google quickly learned this lesson when major companies such as Toyota and Anheuser-Busch pulled their ads after they were ahead of YouTube videos made by extremists.
After it became clear how unhealthy the conversation was, Jack Dorsey, Twitter's co-founder and former CEO, spent many years trying to improve the "health" of the conversations on the platform.
After U.K. parliamentarian Stella Creasy was subject to a torrent of rape threats and death threats, the company was one of the early adopters of the "report abuse” button. Online abuse resulted from a seemingly positive tweet supporting feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, who advocated for Jane Austen's inclusion on a British banknote. Creasy was sentenced to 18 weeks in prison by the online harasser.
Twitter has maintained its rules and invested in technology and staff to detect threats, harassment, and misinformation. Social media companies have intensified their efforts to combat political misinformation after evidence was presented that Russia had used their platforms in an attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Now, the big question is whether Musk, who calls himself a "free speech absolutist", will go as far as possible to reverse these systems. And whether advertisers and users will follow him if he does.
Americans are still more likely to feel harassed online than on any other forum. Women, people of colour, and LGBTQ users report a greater amount of this abuse. According to a Pew Research Centre survey of U.S adults, roughly 80% believe that companies still do a poor job handling harassment.
In the meantime, words like "censorship" or "free speech" have become political rallying cries of conservatives. They are frustrated that right-leaning commentators, as well as high-profile Republican officials, have been kicked off Facebook and Twitter because they violate their rules.
Musk seemed to be critical of Twitter’s permanent ban on President Donald Trump last January for messages that were said by the tech company to have incited the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol.
Musk tweeted, days after Trump was banned on Twitter and Facebook.
Trump's close aides, including his son Donald Trump Jr. have even asked Musk to purchase the company.
Trump Jr. wrote in the caption to an Instagram video last April that "If Elon Musk can privately launch people into space, I'm sure it's possible he can create a social network which isn't biased."
Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethic at the University of Notre Dame said that Twitter has always been a responsible social media company. This is evident in its moderation system and its hirings in the field of machine learning ethics. They also allow research to be done on the platform. Musk's desire to change this, she said, indicates that he is focusing on "irresponsible" social media.
Twitter declined to comment on this story. Musk representatives did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Trump's Truth Social is one of many new social media apps that target conservatives. It has not been able to match the success of Twitter and Facebook. This is partly due to the fact that Republican politicians, politicians, and causes draw large audiences to existing platforms, which are much more established.
Floods of violent, false, or inflamatory posts are also contributing to this phenomenon. Parler, a right-wing social media platform, was almost taken offline last year after it was discovered that Parler had been used by rioters to promote violence and organize the January 6th siege at the U.S. Capitol. Apple and Google banned the app from their online stores. Amazon also stopped hosting web-hosting services.
Musk blocks users of social media who criticize him or his company. He also bullies journalists who write critical articles about Tesla or him. Musk regularly tweets at journalists who write about his company and sometimes mischaracterizes their work as "false or misleading."
His tweets are often popular and send a large number of his followers to the accounts of reporters to harass them for hours to days.
Musk responded to a tweet by a reporter in 2020: "I only block people because they are direct insults."
Evan Greer, an activist for Fight for the Future said that Musk's inexperience with managing social media platforms will prove a problem if the company is successfully taken over.
Greer stated, "If we want free speech online, we can't live with a world in which the richest person can buy a platform that millions depend on and then modify the rules to his liking."