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Elon Musk is buying Twitter – what happens now?

A person uses the Twitter app on an iPhone (PA)
A person uses the Twitter app on an iPhone (PA)

Twitter has accepted billionaire Elon Musk’s bid to buy the company, with the Tesla and SpaceX boss pledging to boost free speech on the platform so it can fulfil its potential as the world’s “digital town square”.

Mr Musk, the world’s wealthiest person and a prolific Twitter user, has a controversial past on the site and his taking the company private is likely to have substantial ramifications for a platform used by more than 300 million people, including many world leaders.

Here is a closer look at what could happen next.

– So, what has Musk said about his plans for Twitter?

As the takeover was confirmed on Monday, the first thing Mr Musk mentioned in his statement on the issue was free speech, calling it the “bedrock of a functioning democracy”, and describing Twitter as the “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”.

In the past, the billionaire has self-identified as a “free speech absolutist” and suggested Twitter had failed to live up to its free speech principles and has been critical of its content moderation policies, arguing it has censored some voices.

– And what has been the response to that?

It’s a viewpoint that has made Mr Musk popular on the political right, with many conservatives, particularly in the United States, believing they are currently unfairly targeted by social media platforms.

And it has led to speculation that now he is set to assume full control of the company, the billionaire could significantly loosen Twitter’s content moderation rules and allow suspended accounts – most notably including that of former US president Donald Trump – back on the site, although he has said he’s not coming back for now.

It has also raised concerns among online safety campaigners. Amnesty International Technology’s director Rasha Abdul-Rahim said: “We are concerned with any steps that Twitter might take to erode enforcement of the policies and mechanisms designed to protect users.

“The last thing we need is a Twitter that wilfully turns a blind eye to violent and abusive speech against users, particularly those most disproportionately impacted, including women, non-binary persons, and others.”

Mr Musk’s personal approach to free speech on Twitter also has a mixed history. He has blocked people on the platform who have criticised him or his companies in the past, been sanctioned by the US over tweets about Tesla’s business and was sued for defamation after calling a cave diver a “pedo guy” – ultimately winning in court against British rescuer Vernon Unsworth.

Vernon Unsworth
Vernon Unsworth with his MBE following an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace (David Mirzoeff/PA)

– Does he have any other plans for Twitter?

In his statement, the entrepreneur said he wanted to make the site’s algorithms open source – meaning the code used to build them would be publicly accessible to allow users to see how certain posts were served to them in their timelines.

He said he wants to do this in the name of trust, and that this model is better than having tweets be “mysteriously promoted or demoted”.

However, some experts have already suggested there are limitations to this plan simply because very few people will be able to understand how the code being used in these systems produces the results they do, even if the move would be a clear step forward for general transparency.

– What else is he targeting?

Mr Musk has also spoken of “defeating the spam bots”, one pledge that is likely to be extremely popular on all sides.

Twitter has long had an issue with automated, fake accounts being used to relentlessly post unhelpful or misleading content and artificially influence discussion on the platform.

However, a level of caution – and not a blanket removal of bot accounts – has been urged by some who argue that there are a number of automated accounts which offer a genuine public service rather than spouting spam.

There are accounts which post alerts for extreme weather and natural disasters or simply allow users to save single tweets or threads for reading later – accounts like this should be spared any bot cull, it is argued.

Twitter logo reflected in glasses
There have been mixed responses to the Tesla pioneer’s successful bid (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

– What other issues does Mr Musk face?

Governments and regulators around the world, including the UK, are putting new laws in place to clamp down on harmful content online – with substantial implications for Twitter, even before this takeover.

Under the rules of the UK’s proposed Online Safety Bill, companies could face massive fines or have access to their sites blocked if they fail to stop the spread of violent, abusive material, as well as hate speech and other content.

There are even plans to hold company executives criminally liable for rules breaches in some cases.

The biggest issue for Twitter under Musk with these new rules could be through so-called “legal but harmful” content.

This refers to content that in itself is legal but could be harmful when users encounter it and therefore should be taken down.

Under Mr Musk’s proposed free speech model, this could become a key area of friction between the site and regulators in the UK.

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