It finally happened. After months of “maybe, maybe not,” Elon Musk bought Twitter for $44 billion. Now the question is, what happens next?
In the past, Musk said he thought Twitter should follow the same free speech guidelines that exist within America’s public square, says Jake Denton, a research associate with The Heritage Foundation’s Tech Policy Center.The indication from Musk is that “he will stick to that,” Denton says.
Denton, who is currently locked out of his own Twitter account, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain why he is cautiously optimistic about Musk’s takeover of Twitter and to describe the changes that might be coming to the social media platform.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: Well, it finally happened after months of “maybe, maybe not,” Elon Musk bought Twitter for $44 billion. And now the question is, what happens next? Jake Denton is a research associate in The Heritage Foundation’s Tech Policy Center and he joins us now to answer that question. Jake, thanks for being here.
Jake Denton: Thanks for having me on.
Allen: So, Jake, for so long, we were hearing that Musk was maybe going to buy Twitter. Nothing at all seemed certain. There was one point where he said he was going to pull out of the deal because Twitter wouldn’t disclose the number of bots that they had on the platform. What happened that caused this deal to finally go through?
Denton: Yeah. So it was a long, long process. Musk submitted an official offer, then withdrew the offer. Twitter sues and says, “You have to keep the offer because, you know, the shareholder implications.” And it was really just a big tug of war.
I feel like we can probably attribute most of it to the disclosures from the trial that actually resulted in him taking over the company. But it’s tough to say what really pushed the settlement to actually go through. He really didn’t get a lot of clarity on the bot issue. There’s still a lot of unknowns. That’s why you saw the Tesla engineers come in and start auditing the code at Twitter, Day One of him taking the helm. There’s just all these outstanding questions that the trial didn’t answer.
Allen: Well, and he had a pretty colorful entrance into Twitter’s headquarters last week. He walked in carrying a sink. Why?
Denton: Yeah. I think it’s largely linked to the internet lore and the internet lingo of people always reply, “Let that sink in.” “Oh, my God, Elon buys Twitter. Let that sink in.” And Elon let the sink in.
But I think it’s a testament to he’s going to do things different. He’s going to be the quirky, nerdy boss that everyone expected him to be. So the unorthodox approach, the loud obnoxious approach, is what we should probably expect from Elon’s Twitter.
Allen: Well, it’s certainly entertaining, to say the least.
Allen: So let’s talk a little bit about the changes that we might see at Twitter moving forward. As conservatives, obviously, we’re hopeful that we maybe are going to see some accounts stop being pulled off. That people will actually be able to say things, that maybe masks don’t work, they won’t be shut down for that. Or, “Rachel Levine is a man,” and their account won’t be stripped away from all posting privileges for that.
Do you know what Musk’s plan is for free speech on the platform? Does he plan to have fact-checkers?
Denton: So, in the early days, when this sale seemed unlikely and he was just almost giving his philosophy on what the platform should look like, he made an argument that Twitter should just abide by the speech laws of the United States. And so if you’re allowed to say it in a public square, you’re allowed to say it on Twitter. And it’s really the idea of the public square is digitized, that is what Twitter is. And so all indication is that he will stick to that.
There is some concerning news that he’s forming his own governance board, and I really don’t like the idea of bringing in more academics, just like Meta did. The Facebook Oversight Board’s been a total disaster. They’re just a bunch of woke academics.
And so if Elon can bring over people from conservative circles and actually have a real voice for these people who are deplatformed, like President [Donald] Trump and all the countless other influencers, I think that could be a value add, maybe, give some legitimacy to his speech policies. But a lot of unknowns in terms of what the speech guidelines will be on the platform.
Allen: That is going to be interesting to see play out because he did, he tweeted that he would be forming a content moderation council. But like you say, it’s going to be curious to see what exactly that means. What does that look like? Who’s going to sit on that council?
Denton: Council, oversight board, all of these words are things that should make your skin crawl. It never ends well for conservatives. There’s not a single institution in which conservatives are represented by this elite class of academics, the decision-makers. It’s just an excuse, essentially. They give some Ph.D. the authority and you just listen to them because they’re a Ph.D. But ordinary Americans just get deplatformed left and right, there’s no course of action.
Allen: Well, and you are one of those Americans that got deplatformed. Your own personal account on Twitter was recently taken down. What happened?
Denton: Yeah. In the dead of night on Saturday. It’s the Halloween weekend, I’m with some friends. And I get a scary email: “Your Twitter’s been permanently banned.” And you’re sitting there, like, I haven’t tweeted in a week. How could this have possibly happened? And you start poking around and you see, oh, I was banned for ban evasion. Well, that’s strange. I don’t have another account. So how would I be evading a ban?
And what I came to find out is this is essentially a thing called a network ban. And Twitter will highlight three accounts, four accounts that if a user follows them and they follow some of these other concerning accounts, you’re above a 60% threshold of following bad people, you’re just out. And they don’t do any manual review, it’s algorithmic. And they just purge.
Allen: So it’s not because you tweeted something bad, it’s just because you follow people that Twitter has said, “These are people we don’t like, that we don’t like what they tweet—”
Allen: ” … And you’re a threat because you follow them. So we’re going to take you down.”
Denton: So it’s like you’re adjacent to troublemakers. So you have, whether it be misinformation, hate speech, or any other buzzword, they just label accounts as these bad actors. And if you follow them—and I think there is some level of, if you follow them at the earlier date of when they created the account, they just assume you know them in real life. Because how else would you know this anonymous account? It was just made an account.
And so if you follow them, you’re just out. And you can submit an appeal and they hide behind the veil of, “Oh, the [artificial intelligence] did it,” or, “Oh, it was computer—a human will review it.” The humans don’t review the appeals either. It’s all just digitized, computer. … It’s like going to the DMV and trying to get something resolved. No one’s going to help you. So all signs point to me remaining off the platform until Elon gets this thing sorted out.
Allen: Do we know that he is going to be reinstating users like yourself who have been pulled off the platform?
Denton: So, he’s definitely hinted at people like President Trump coming back, a little bit of hinting toward maybe Steve Bannon, which gives you hope that just a broader jailbreak, if you will, will occur where all these folks that were just wrongfully thrown off the platform could potentially return.
Most of these cases were just mass bans. There’s no real behavior issue. You didn’t tweet profane words, you didn’t threaten a life. You just happen to exist within a circle that Twitter as a company does not like.
And so what you find is this HR culture is so pervasive that it floods every department. And whether it be the content moderation team, the misinformation board, whatever it is, they just use that HR culture, HR ideology to enforce speech laws and just broader regulatory guidelines upon average users. And it just results in Americans being taken offline.
Allen: So let’s be optimistic for a second and say that Elon Musk comes in, he reinstates people that were wrongfully banned. We get The Babylon Bee back on there. And he really starts to clean up some of these issues that we see with Twitter regarding free speech policies. Do you think that that would have any implications on other social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube?
Denton: I think there will be—similar to how we’ve spun up Truth and Parler and these conservative alternatives. I think someone will come along, whether it be Facebook or some other platform, and be like, “We’re going to be the left-leaning platform.” Which is ironic because they all already are that way. But they’ll really stick to their current—the status quo of the platform. They’re not going to switch any of their rules. If anything, they make them stricter and give the Left their platform.
I don’t see a world in which Meta and Mark Zuckerberg come out and are like, “Thank God Elon saved the internet. We’re going to do it, too.” If anything, they’re going to be bashing heads over regulate speech versus free speech. And this is kind of, like, two world views colliding almost within the social media sphere.
Allen: Now, we do have to talk about the conversation internationally because The Washington Post, they report that about 75% of Twitter’s users are outside the U.S. And there are concerns that Musk is a little too friendly toward countries like China or Russia. Should we be concerned about Elon Musk’s approach toward China and some of these other totalitarian nations?
Denton: Yeah, I mean, it’s no secret Tesla and all these other corporations that Musk is involved with operate in China and they have factories in Germany. And he’s an international businessman, and so his ties really aren’t confined to the U.S. And it’s something we see across the tech sector in particular. They claim to be American companies, but they’re international companies. If anything, you could call them a multinational entity. They’re really not even a company. They could almost govern an entire country.
And so Tesla, Twitter now, all these things under Musk’s umbrella will not be free of Chinese influence, Saudi Arabian influence. I mean, the ownership group is under criticism. Elon wasn’t the sole purchaser, he got other investors to come in with him. There’s Saudi foreign wealth embedded in that purchasing group. And so to sit here and talk about Twitter and it’s going to abide by American laws is a little bit farfetched. I think there will be a great deal of foreign influence in how the new foundation of the platform will be laid.
Allen: So then, I think that puts things in perspective. We’ve got to take rose-colored glasses off. There’s still lots of issues here. What role does Congress have, or does Congress have a role in making sure that whether it be Twitter or other social media platforms are abiding by constitutional standards, essentially?
Denton: I mean, the bare minimum right now for Congress is to take action against TikTok. Everybody knows the Chinese are stealing our data. We just had the Forbes article that highlights that China is literally targeting specific Americans. Surveilling their geolocation, tracking their keystrokes. We know that it’s happening. And yet, there has been not a single move to regulate them since Trump tried to pass it early in his administration.
And so to sit here and think that maybe Twitter gets some form of regulatory burden on them I think is crazy because the easiest target right now is TikTok. And we are just paralyzed. No one will do anything.
So we have a long ways to go in terms of informing members about the dangers of foreign influence on these platforms, what it means to have one of the most popular applications be a propaganda vehicle for a foreign entity, its predominant audience as children. What does that mean? When this generation is 20, 30 years old, how are they voting? How are they raising their family? When all of these pieces of content were coming from China, Russia, wherever they’re coming from, we can’t act like it’s not going to influence their future behaviors.
Allen: So for you and your team at The Heritage Foundation, as you-all work on tech policy at this moment in time, in 2022, and with these changes, with Elon Musk taking over Twitter, what are you-all prioritizing and what do we as the American people need to be aware of?
Denton: Well, I mean, aside from the slow pace on the legislative side, a lot is happening. It’s chaos. Whether you have acquisitions from one company acquiring another, and there’s now monopoly implications, you have a great deal of privacy violations. You have corporations like Apple, Facebook stealing health care data, and no one’s saying anything, right? And so it’s like we’re putting out fires across the board. We’re trying to shine a light on all sorts of abuses that are occurring.
I’d say on the top of the list is obviously the speech issue. Because nothing else can happen if you’re not allowed to talk about it. How are we going to alert the public that their data’s being stolen if we’re banned on Twitter? I can’t tweet my article that’s coming out on Thursday about TikTok and all of the surveillance implications because I’m not allowed on the platform.
And so you look at that at scale and it’s, like, that has to be the first thing you go after. After that, I mean, data privacy, huge deal. And that has a lot of foreign components to it, national security issues. And then you just follow on from there, and antitrust and fixing up market issues. But I mean, nothing can happen without speech being resolved, really.
Allen: Yeah, it’s critical. Jake Denton from The Heritage Foundation, we so appreciate your time. We really appreciate you breaking this down as we’re going to continue to see what happens with Elon at Twitter.
Denton: Thanks for having me.
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