By Zander Frost, Chronicle Staff Writer
Elon Musk agreed to buy Twitter for $44-billion Monday. The Wall Street Journal said it would be “one of the biggest acquisitions in tech history.”
Elon’s promise to restore free speech to Twitter, which he calls the world’s new “town square,” has ignited imagination, debate and panic.
But for me the biggest ramification of this deal would be adding transparency to Twitter’s algorithm.
On most major social platforms, users no longer know why they’re seeing what they’re seeing, or what is being hidden from them.
Users can be “shadow-banned” — meaning they believe they’re posting as normal but the platform has drastically reduced their reach. A mix of human beings and algorithms make the decisions, with little to no transparency.
The idea that everything and anything could be manipulated is one reason for the now pervasive distrust of tech companies. Compare Google search results to DuckDuckGo. Why are they so different? Why are some results boosted?
Initially most default social media feeds were chronological. But now they’re algorithmic — which platforms say gives users more of what they want.
Elon is suggesting pulling back the curtain, making Twitter’s algorithm open source on the GitHub platform.
Everyone could see the algorithm — what’s being pushed, what’s being held back. They could raise objections, and propose changes. You might be able to analyze any Tweet, and see if it’s being suppressed.
Another idea would allow users to choose their own algorithms, something that Twitter founder Jack Dorsey discussed before he stepped down as CEO last year.
This would be a monumental change if it happened on a platform of Twitter’s scale, and could ignite pressure on other companies like Meta (formerly Facebook), TikTok and Reddit to do the same.
Bringing this to the public eye would be, if nothing else, educational to the general populace. Users will understand how their data is being used, and how the algorithm is affecting them.
They’ll have more control over their own experience.
Corporate media have been in a frenzy since Elon’s initial offer. They’ve lamented that posts could be suppressed and manipulated, and public discourse could be altered by shadowy figures.
That would sound very scary if it wasn’t already happening now.
Such objections to Elon’s purchase are not based on principle. They’re really just objections to potential removal of the particular moderators who share the speaker’s own world view.
It’s not sustainable for a healthy society. Elon Musk is a billionaire, not a saint. He knows how to build companies, create excitement, and use social media to his benefit. It remains to be seen how real his commitment to free speech will be for Twitter.
But he is suggesting a real, positive change to make Internet platforms more transparent. And it may have a positive domino effect.
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