Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter represents ‘unprecedented, uncharted territory’

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Elon Musk bought Twitter on Monday, and soon users of the social-media platform, as well as regulators and lawmakers around the world, will find themselves in “unprecedented, uncharted territory,” says John Wihbey, associate professor of media innovation and technology at Northeastern.  

Twitter’s board accepted Musk’s $44 billion offer for the company in a dramatic turn of events that comes less than two weeks after the billionaire announced his bid for the company, The Wall Street Journal reports. Market-watchers expected Twitter to reject the offer, as the company moved to prevent Musk from increasing his stake in the company after he announced his bid on April 14. But after Musk produced financing, Twitter appeared more interested.

John Wihbey, associate professor of media innovation and technology at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

If Musk takes the company private, he would have full control of highly granular individual data for hundreds of millions of Twitter users, including accounts run by national embassies, politicians, and government agencies.

“If you think about Elon Musk as his own nation-state with his own inscrutable intentions, it’s not dissimilar to selling the company to a foreign nation,” Wihbey says. “Elon Musk would personally own a lot of data from users around the world. And if he, a single person, unchecked by the discipline of a public company, owns this information, there are certainly questions that arise about how fair a broker he can be.”

Famously elusive and often fickle, Musk has made some of his gripes with Twitter well-known. He’s frequently criticized the company’s content moderators for intervening too heavily on the platform, which he’s called the internet’s “de facto public town square.”

In a regulatory filing to announce his offer to buy the company, Musk wrote, “I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy,” adding that he believes the company would “neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”

However, Wihbey chalks Musk’s free-speech rhetoric up to more of a talking point than a strategic initiative, particularly when Twitter executives have been battling with thorny issues in countries around the world that have serious life-or-death consequences.

Earlier this year in India, for example, Twitter blocked hundreds of accounts and tweets linked to protests over agricultural reform laws, after one such protest turned deadly, the BBC reports. The company removed the tweets at the request of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, but then restored accounts associated with media and activist groups—which government officials then demanded Twitter block again.

The back-and-forth illustrates one of many complex negotiations the company must make as it expands further into populations beyond the U.S., says Wihbey, whose own research indicates that much of the growth for Twitter and other social-media platforms is international.

“Twitter is facing serious human-rights concerns in markets around the world, often where real violence is at stake,” Wihbey says. “Just saying ‘Twitter needs more free speech’ doesn’t solve the practical political problems the company is dealing with.”

Musk has also said that he plans to make Twitter’s algorithm an open-source model, enabling anyone to see the code that dictates how and when tweets appear on a user’s timeline.

This would be a change Wihbey can get behind, he says. “We should be able to figure out what these algorithms are doing with more precision. They should be subject to outside, third-party research.”

With relatively open data sources (compared to other social-media platforms), Twitter has long been used as a resource for social-network, computer-science, other social-science researchers, as well. Now that Musk is poised to take over, it’s not clear that researchers will still have access to this important source of information.

“This was always a long-term fear for people who do research with Twitter, but I don’t think anyone ever expected the ground to shift this suddenly beneath our feet,” Wihbey says.

For media inquiries, please contact Ed Gavaghan at e.gavaghan@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.