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Elon Musk wants to destroy Twitter’s rules — that would make it a scary place

·Technology Editor
·4 min read
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Elon Musk wants to buy Twitter (TWTR) for $43 billion and take it private. The reason? To make the social network a free speech platform for the entire world. Essentially, Musk wants to stop Twitter from policing certain types of speech.

But, according to experts, removing Twitter’s checks on user-generated content could destroy the social network as we know it.

“If Twitter really had no rules, it would be a total cesspool,” Paul Barrett, deputy director of NYU Stern's Center for Business and Human Rights, told Yahoo Finance.

Musk initially took a 9.2% stake earlier this month, and was offered a board seat with the caveat that he couldn’t own more than 14.9% of Twitter. And while Musk initially accepted that offer, he just as quickly rejected it via, you guessed it, Twitter.

He is now attempting a hostile takeover by going directly to Twitter’s shareholders, in an effort to run the company, his favorite mouthpiece, as he sees fit. If he fails? Well, he said during a Ted Talk on Thursday that he’s got a plan B — though he didn’t elaborate on what that would entail.

"I'm not sure I'll be able to acquire it," Musk said during the chat.

But if the world's richest person truly allows all speech on the service, hate speech and misinformation would also flourish. And that would send users, and more importantly advertisers, fleeing for social networks that keep a tighter grip on speech.

Opening up Twitter would crush it

In a Wednesday filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Musk said he would purchase all of Twitter for $54.20 per share in cash. That equates to a 54% premium above the stock’s price before Musk took a major stake in the company, and a 38% premium over the platform’s share price the day before the SEC announced that 9.2% stake.

In his filing, Musk said that Twitter, “will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”

FILE - Tesla CEO Elon Musk introduces the Cybertruck at Tesla's design studio Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, in Hawthorne, Calif. Musk won't be joining Twitter's board of directors as previously announced. The tempestuous billionaire remains Twitter’s largest shareholder. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)
Tesla CEO Elon Musk. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

How exactly he will do that remains to be seen, but the mercurial CEO of Tesla and SpaceX has previously spoken out against Twitter’s content moderation. But those guards on free speech appeal to many users and companies paying Twitter’s bills.

“The reason that the platforms do content moderation is not necessarily entirely because of their noble aspirations,” Barrett said. “It's because they have to do that to make the platform usable by normal people and attractive to advertisers.”

If Musk aims to improve Twitter and unlock its value, then he won’t achieve that goal by forcing users to post on the same platform as hate groups.

And chances are major advertisers won’t want their ads for things like diapers and fast food to appear alongside tweets by Neo-Nazis.

“The constraints that companies are putting on their platforms [are] so that they can run a business,” Barrett said. “It's not because they want to be in the business of censoring people.”

Musk thinks Twitter censors speech

Musk has ignited a series of firestorms on Twitter in the past. He once tweeted an image comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Hitler, and regularly tangles with politicians, often via childish insults. And, of course, he famously claimed via Twitter he had the funding to take Tesla private; he later paid a $20 million fine to settle SEC charges over that claim.

On March 25, Musk posted a Twitter poll asking his 81.6 million followers if they believed Twitter adheres to the principle that a functioning democracy requires free speech. When his followers overwhelmingly voted no, meaning they didn’t think Twitter believed that, Musk claimed Twitter undermines democracy.

Of course, Twitter isn’t a government entity that has to abide by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees. And deciding what kind of speech it wants on its platform is a form of its own free speech.

“In an ideal world, free speech, and an unfettered and open platform would be great. But we're not naive enough to realize that that world doesn't exist,” said Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College.

“We're so far away from that world, where we moderate each other and we self-police, self-govern each other in a mechanism that's fair and equitable.”

If Musk does, however, buy Twitter and kill its ability to police speech, it may become far more appealing to him. But everyday users will likely delete the platform rather than share it with extremists.

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Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@yahoofinance.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.