Musk's buying Twitter could improve it in one big way

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Wednesday, April 27, 2022

A more transparent algorithm

By now you probably know that Elon Musk is buying Twitter (TWTR) for $44 billion, pending regulatory and shareholder approval, of course.

The Tesla (TSLA) and SpaceX CEO, and richest person on Earth depending on the day, has already suggested a number of changes to the platform including a controversial plan to ease content moderation to allow more kinds of speech. Critics say doing so will simply turn Twitter into a cesspool of hate speech, disinformation, and harassment.

I’ve previously written about how easing moderation could blow up in Musk’s face, jettisoning users and advertisers from the platform. But let’s, for a moment, focus on at least one potentially positive change Musk has suggested for the social network — making the algorithms that power the service more transparent for researchers and users.

Academics and regulators have been asking social media companies to open up their algorithms for some time. That transparency could strengthen Twitter in the long run by explaining the guidelines used to create the algorithms and whether they favor one group over another.

FILE - Tesla and SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk speaks at the SATELLITE Conference and Exhibition in Washington, Monday, March 9, 2020. Musk now has a 9% stake in Twitter and a seat on its corporate board of directors, raising questions about how the billionaire business magnate could reshape the social media platform. He is now Twitter's biggest shareholder and has the ear of top managers. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Elon Musk could reveal more about Twitter's algorithms. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

“That could give a degree of legitimacy to Twitter that a lot of these social media platforms don't have, because the decisions are in a black box that we don't know about,” explained Mike Horning, associate professor of multimedia journalism in the Virginia Tech School of Communication.

Of course, there are potential pitfalls to revealing Twitter’s algorithms, including giving malicious actors the opportunity to game the system.

A better understanding of what makes Twitter tick

Simply put, algorithms are a series of clearly defined instructions. In other words, there’s no secret man behind the curtain pulling a series of levers that generate your Twitter feed.

Still, algorithms themselves aren’t without inherent bias. That’s because no matter how hard a programmer or coder tries, they’re only human. And just as developers can make mistakes when coding that can be exploited by malware, developers can accidentally introduce their own bias into algorithms.

Regulators, lawmakers, and critics of all stripes have called on social media companies to better explain their algorithms so users have insight into why they’re seeing certain types of content.

The thinking is if Twitter can explain its algorithms, users will be able to trust the service more than competitors’ offerings that don’t include the same level of transparency.

“Musk's points that we need to maybe look at transparency in terms of algorithms and open source them, that could lead to interest groups with the technical skills to look at those algorithms say, ‘Look, there's bias here or there's not,’ ” Horning said.

But giving users a better look at the algorithms that drive Twitter could also empower malicious actors who want to exploit the platform. Foreign disinformation specialists would be able to recognize what they needed to do to spread their message, while conspiracy theorists at home could figure out how to suck more people into their warped world views.

According to Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, Musk could also improve Twitter by creating individual segments that appeal to users’ interests. Twitter users already do this by curating their feeds in apps like TweetDeck, but Lightman suggests making the practice a part of the main Twitter app.

“Being able to personalize something is really important,” Lightman said. “So it might be if you're traveling to a different part of [a] city, it might orient tweets to you based on the geography in which you're located. Or let's say you're doing research on the Russia Ukraine conflict, so you might get a variety of tweets associated with that.”

By adding more utility and customization to Twitter, Lightman explained, Musk could make Twitter feel less like a constant firehose of information and more like a platform that appeals to users’ various interests.

Musk’s free speech claims could sink other changes

While making Twitter’s algorithm less of a black box and providing users with more customization could improve the overall user experience, Musk’s goal of reducing content moderation could hurt users.

Musk argued that Twitter censors users’ speech and as the company’s new owner, he would cut down on moderation practices. But doing so could introduce even more hate speech, disinformation, and harassment to the service.

If that happens, users could leave Twitter and take advertisers with them. After all, companies don’t want ads for products like baby food or dog toys running next to some neo-Nazi screed.

Of course, Musk’s planned takeover isn’t set in stone. He could walk back his content moderation plans or change his mind about algorithm transparency.

For now, we’re all just waiting to see what he does next. And we’ll probably find out the way we always do with Musk: via tweet.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him @DanielHowley

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