Twitter under one person’s control scares online security experts

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Security professionals in the social media industry and outside experts who have spent years trying to slow down the empowerment of bullies and violent mobs by Facebook and other platforms are appalled that a second major company could come under the control of one person, especially one complaining that Twitter places too many limits on what can be displayed on its site.

In tweets and a conversation that followed his surprise offer last week to make Twitter private, billionaire Elon Musk decried decisions to ban certain users as censorship and said moderation curbs the spread of legal but offensive content goes too far. “If it’s a gray area, let the tweet exist,” Musk said Thursday.

Such comments alarm those whose experience has been that unfettered speech renders social media platforms unusable and that lightly controlled speech favors those who can direct thousands of people to make versions of the same point, which is then amplified. by algorithms designed to maximize engagement and therefore advertising dollars.

“It’s a disaster, and it’s not just about Elon Musk, but it kind of puts him on steroids,” said Shoshana Zuboff, a retired Harvard Business School professor and author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” which says the money made from collecting data on human behavior is the lifeblood of a new and hitherto almost unregulated era.

Zuboff argues that social media companies like Facebook and Twitter extract as much user data as possible and then try to maximize their time on the site because it makes them money. But the platforms, she argues, are not neutral. By driving users online, they not only change discussions, but also beliefs and even physical actions, encouraging people to do what they otherwise wouldn’t, like participating in protests in the real world.

Putting so much power in the hands of one company is bad enough, but putting it in the hands of one person, as is largely the case with Facebook shareholder Mark Zuckerberg and it would be if Twitter owned by Musk would be incompatible with democracy, Zuboff said.

“There are just no checks and balances from any internal or external forces,” she said in an interview. That would leave Musk, like Zuckerberg, with an amount of data gathered about people and the ability to use it to manipulate them “that cannot be compared to anything that has ever existed, and allows intervention in the integrity of individual behavior and also in the integrity of collective behavior” .

“Zuckerberg sits at his celestial keyboard, and he can decide day by day, hour by hour, whether people are going to be angrier or less angry, whether publications are going to live or die,” she said.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. Musk did not respond to email questions. Zuckerberg, at least, has a board of directors and the Securities and Exchange Commission to look after the interests of shareholders. A private Twitter owned by Musk wouldn’t even be mandated to have that.

Zuboff believes whole new institutions must emerge over the next decade to govern information spaces. Behind the controversy over Musk’s bid to buy Twitter is an ongoing debate about whether tech executives already hold too much control over online discourse.

During its April 17 cold open, “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at key events of the week, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter. (Video: The Washington Post)

If Musk takes control of Twitter, it could add pressure on US policymakers to regulate social media companies, former officials say told the Washington Post.

A person with “near-monopoly control” over a social network could only heighten those worries among policymakers, said Bill Baer, ​​a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Having an individual who is an unpredictable commodity, to say the least, at the helm of such an important communication platform will probably make a lot of people nervous,” said Baer, ​​who previously ran enforcement of antitrust laws at the Federal Trade Commission and Justice. Department.

In interviews, former Democratic regulators and anti-monopoly advocates said Musk’s offer to buy Twitter underscores the need for Congress to pass legislation governing the internet. Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said Musk is taking steps that underscore the need for a new regulator to oversee the tech industry.

“What we need is a process that respects the First Amendment in which the government does not dictate the content but ensures that there is a code of acceptable behavior,” Wheeler said.

Even professionals who think social media is a net good say that Twitter, as Musk imagines, would be terrible for users and investors. The past few years have spawned a number of Twitter knockoffs aimed at those who feel muzzled by the original, including Gab and Parler, but none have taken off into the mainstream.

This is no accident, said Alicia Wanless, director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington. People want ground rules the same way they would avoid a nightclub that condones the occasional violence.

“Musk can buy Twitter and try to bring it back to a lost nostalgic Eden of the internet’s early days, but platforms with the lowest community standards, like Gab, barely rank because it’s not good business” , said Wanless.

Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has helped protect global rights activists from government hacking and ordinary people from domestic harassment, said she “would be concerned about the impacts on the human rights and personal safety of anyone with full control over Twitter’s policies”.

She added, “I’m particularly concerned about the impact of full ownership by someone who has repeatedly demonstrated they don’t understand the realities of large-scale content moderation.”

Quoting Musk supporting the idea of ​​allowing anything legal, Galperin said, “Twitter’s content moderation practices leave a lot to be desired, but they’ve tried the policies that Musk seems to favor over a decade ago. , and it didn’t work.”

Withdrawing in moderation would disproportionately harm women, minorities and anyone out of favor with the establishment, civil rights advocates said. “Without rules of the road, we are going to be put at risk,” said Rashad Robinson, president of racial justice group Color of Change. “Our protections cannot match the whims of billionaires.”

Alex Stamos, the former Facebook security chief who exposed Russian misinformation on that platform during the 2016 election, said Musk had an idea of ​​Twitter as a public place for free expression that’s divorced from the reality of many individuals and failed to recognize that it would empower the most powerful.

Without moderation, Stamos said, “Anyone who expresses an opinion ends up with all forms of occasional insults right up to death threats and rape threats. That’s the basis of the internet. If you want people to be able to interact , you must have ground rules.

“When you talk about a public place, it’s a mistaken analogy. In this case, Twitter’s public square includes hundreds of millions of people who can interact pseudo-anonymously from hundreds of miles away. A Russian troll farm can invent hundreds of people to show up in the town square.

“The algorithm decides who is heard,” added Claire Wardle, a Brown University professor who studies misinformation and social media moderation policies. For Wardle, Musk sounds like he’s talking about before the 2016 election, when the scale of foreign disinformation campaigns in the country shocked users and pundits and accelerated more sophisticated moderation efforts that, even now, are well below their targets.

“We were so naive because we didn’t understand how these rigs are weaponized,” Wardle said. “The idea that we would go back to where we were is a disaster.” But it fits with the entrepreneur’s documented disregard for regulations and regulators, whether they relate to labor, auto safety or the stock market, critics noted.

Some Republicans have applauded Musk as part of their argument that Twitter, which was the first platform to ban President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, was unfair to conservatives.

But a successful takeover could make more regulation from Washington more likely as part of a broader effort. hold back big tech companies. “Consolidating control is not the way to protect democracy and strengthen free speech,” said Samir Jain, policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “It will only exacerbate people’s concerns about the extent to which these companies influence our discourse.”

If Twitter were to be private, its policies and decisions would become less transparent to policymakers and the general public, raising additional challenges to combat the role of tech companies, Baer said.

Over the past year, Facebook whistleblowers have filed complaints with the SEC, alleging the company misled investors about its efforts to crack down on misinformation and rebel-linked accounts. backed by Russia fighting in Ukraine. But such challenges would not be possible on Twitter if the platform was under private control.

“There would be less public disclosure, there would be less independent oversight,” Baer said. “There would be no ability for independent directors on the board or individual shareholders to challenge or shape the behavior of Twitter, if it is owned solely by one person.”