Great Twitter takeover has big implications for news publishers

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Twitter may be one of the smaller social media platforms, but it has outsized influence in the news industry and really is the town square for journalists worldwide. So it was inevitable some of the fastest and most succinct takes on Elon Musk’s sensational takeover today were on his new platform.

At the thoughtful end of the spectrum, much of the initial reaction was about the implications for regulation — particularly from the European Union — and whether the takeover of a critical global social communications service by the world’s richest man would accelerate demands for control.

“Perhaps one of the most ironic likely outcomes of a Musk/Twitter deal is that it will potentially prove a trigger for increased regulation around the ownership of such protocols/platforms,” tweeted Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

Musk has described himself as a “free speech absolutist.” He’s been a frequent critic of Twitter moderation policies designed to limit the use of the platform to harass or intimidate or spread disinformation. It is not yet 100% certain what he may change, but it appears clear he favours a more laissez faire approach to moderation – a stance that, if implemented at a corporate level, would be bound to bring him into conflict with multiple regulators.

“Anyone who thinks a global platform can define 'free speech' as 'something in the American constitution' and then just go home is going to have a very painful few years,’ technology analyst Benedict Evans tweeted, commenting on Musk’s own tweet saying he hoped “even my worst critics remain on Twitter because that is what free speech means.”

In his own short statement on the successful bid and in various comments during the rapid-fire takeover that really only started on April 1, Musk has talked about several potential steps that news publishers will be watching carefully — both for their own use of Twitter and for the regulatory and business implications for their own industry:

  • He has talked of “authenticating all humans” — presumably finding a way to confirm which of the 217 million daily monetisable Twitter users deserve something akin to the “blue tick” and defeating the spambots that plague the service.

  • He has talked of shifting towards a subscription model and away from advertising, and suggested a lower price point than the US$2.99 recently launched Twitter Blue.

  • He says he wants to open what he has called the Twitter algorithm to the public.

  • Create the long-discussed “edit” button on Twitter to allow users to edit their tweets after publication, a godsend for those who make grammatical errors but potentially a big issue if users — especially politicians — change the sense or sentiment of tweets.

  • Leave offensive-but-not-illegal comments and tweets in place to reinforce the idea of an open free speech platform, telling a TED conference recently: “If it’s a gray area, let the tweet exist.”

All that will have huge implications for news publishers and the public, especially with the shield Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has historically allowed the technology platforms to avoid responsibility for what users publish in a way that is anathema to traditional publishers, though they also are theoretically protected online by the same U.S. legislation. 

It is also the case that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — while specifying only protection from government interference with freedom of speech — has become a de facto Internet standard that is frequently in conflict with other countries’ norms and laws.

Apart from those issues, Musk has promised to unlock what he says is the suppressed potential of Twitter Inc. as a public company he will now take private: “Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.” 

“While he’s headlined his move with free speech motives, market analysts are focused on the business implications,” Robert Whitehead, the lead for INMA’s Digital Platform Initiative, told me today. “Twitter makes three cents per tweet, which is well below what was its survival threshold. It needs a deep rebuild if it is to sustainably support his content overhaul objectives. So far Musk has flagged he’s not a fan of more advertising, which makes up 90% of its revenues. He has suggested Twitter’s consumer subscriptions should include a tool to switch it off altogether.”

Whitehead added: “While it’s too early for anyone, even Musk, to know, one likely strategy is for it to return to a ‘classic’ digital platform business model regarding advertising, commercial-use charges, and premium services. For media companies, lawmakers, and other commercial users, this scenario could mean, for example, that they might need to pay to become a professional contributor to publish their verified messages and possibly links to news.”

In one of the great trolling exercises so far in this saga, Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, asked whether Tesla’s reliance on China might have implications for the takeover and future independence of Twitter under Musk’s ownership:

Recommended reads on the todays news:

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About Peter Bale

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