UMD Social Media Expert Predicts Costly Consequences of Gutting Content Moderation
Illustration by Valerie Morgan
Twitter under new owner Elon Musk must maintain vigorous content moderation or risk becoming a “festering societal wound,” said a University of Maryland expert on social media platforms and internet privacy.
The Tesla and SpaceX owner completed a $44 billion purchase of the site on Thursday and has dismissed the entire board of directors, fired several top executives, hinted at massive layoffs and proposed charging verified users $20 per month to keep their blue check.
Jen Golbeck, professor of information studies, is primarily concerned, however, with Musk’s vow to promote his vision of free speech on the 200-million-user site, which may include lifting content moderation requirements. While he sought to reassure advertisers and users that Twitter will form a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints," in the few days since Musk added Twitter to his ownership portfolio, the site has seen a surge in hate speech.
An early Twitter adopter who runs several popular accounts, Golbeck explains the dire consequences of opening the platform to whoever wants to post, the business interests that could keep Musk in check, and her surprise that no tech company has challenged Twitter.
What will happen if Musk makes Twitter a free-for-all?
The average person doesn’t understand how bad it can get when there’s no content moderation. As you saw in my thread over the weekend, I go into a lot of unmoderated spaces, like 4chan, for my research. I still wake up crying some nights because of the things I’ve seen in these forums like animal abuse or livestreams from shooters.
People think content moderators are just dealing with election deniers and Nazis. But they’re dealing with extreme violence, pedophilia, incredibly terrible stuff. If you cut the Twitter workforce by 75%, a lot of this will get through.
The average person on Twitter may not care about Musk’s policies. But if that kind of stuff suddenly comes across your feed, you’re going to leave. If he carries through with what he promised, it will drive many people off the site.
How will his proposal to charge $20 per month for verification affect the platform?
This opens up the space for a lot of impersonation and waters down people’s ability to understand which sources are trustworthy. Every platform needs a reason for people to use it: Facebook is for friends and family, Instagram is for sharing photos, TikTok is for videos and songs. People use Twitter to get news and to have conversations. But if I can no longer tell what’s the good stuff versus the bad stuff because people aren’t paying a much higher fee to keep themselves verified, that’s going to remove a lot of value of Twitter.
A lot of the things he’s talked about doing are discussions of how to weaken the platform. I think the tweet from him this weekend (when Musk tweeted a link spreading misinformation about the attack on Paul Pelosi), as well as the parallel news on verification, makes it seem like Twitter is going to be a place where people are allowed and encouraged to share bad information.
Is it possible to have lighter content moderation that works?
Going back to 2019-level moderation is not going to take us back to 2019-level actions. We’ve seen in the last three years, with the Jan. 6 insurrection and COVID, the stuff happening in these online spaces translates to real-world negative consequences. Today on Truth Social (Trump’s network, set up after he was banned from Twitter), there are memes about watching election boxes, and people are sharing pictures of standing in tactical gear around these boxes. If that stuff is allowed on Twitter again, then Twitter could again become an organizing platform for real-world violence.
Do you think Musk will decide against moving forward with his promises?
The glimmer of hope I have is if Elon does all these things, Twitter will not be worth anything. He already paid too much for Twitter. How much is he willing to lose?
I don’t think he has a real plan. Twitter couldn’t get anyone to buy it before. He had a $44 billion tantrum over, “I’m a rich boy and you can’t tell me what to do!”
What do you plan to do now, as an active and verified Twitter user?
I’m taking the wait-and-see approach. When he first announced he was putting this bid in, a lot of people, including me, went and set up accounts in other places. There’s a lot of alternative stuff out there, but I don’t think any of it is great. I’m deeply surprised no big tech company, like Google or Amazon or Microsoft, has stepped up in these months between when Elon announced and now, to create something new.
I get harassed on my personal account all the time, but I don’t have that many followers. I have a lot more on my dog account (170,000 for @TheGoldenRatio4 featuring her rescue dogs), which is a very wholesome place. I’ll keep it if people stay and it doesn’t become unmanageable to keep the comment sections healthy.
Ultimately, the best platform is the one everyone is on. The one I’ll end up on is the one where everyone else goes. Until stuff starts changing dramatically on Twitter, I’ll keep using it and see how it goes.
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