opinion | If Elon Musk breaks Twitter’s terms of service, he might regret it

All of this is an ethical and moral case for keeping moderation policies in place, but what’s even more puzzling about Mr. Musk’s crusade is that it’s hard to see how eliminating it would be good for the company. Currently, the demographics of Twitter tend to be male. If Twitter wants to expand its business and increase profitability, which on the surface appears to be its goal, it needs to expand its reach. Making the platform a misogynistic and anti-minority environment is not conducive to expansion, unless you believe your most valuable audience is conservative white men and they exist in greater numbers than ever before — and demographic trends suggest they are not.

If anything, Twitter’s record indicates that when you make the platform more suitable for a group of people, the user base grows. When Twitter’s biggest fan, former President Donald Trump, was removed from the platform in January of 2021, research indicated that the percentage of adults on social media who said they used Twitter increased by 21 percent. (Mr. Trump has said he has no plans to rejoin Twitter, but this column isn’t long enough to categorize all the things he said he wouldn’t do next anyway, so some skepticism is in order.) The former president has been invited back, it is entirely plausible that some of the new post-Trump users would leave.

Mr. Musk said he’s not buying Twitter to make money, but as a successful businessman, he supposedly wants to make the company, which has long struggled for profitability, successful. The company’s revenue is currently largely dependent on advertising, and from my experience as a former media entrepreneur and newspaper editor-in-chief, advertisers generally don’t like promoting their brands along with provocative content; Even the daily political news sometimes is too much. If Mr. Musk allows Twitter to become a hotbed of hate speech and misinformation, he will test the platform’s advertisers’ aversion to risk and likely find himself with fewer brands willing to risk appearing in the polluted feed of people.

There is also, of course, a risk – both ethical and to business – that allowing more harassment and misinformation on the platform will do material harm in the real world. The 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy theory, a precursor to QAnon, went viral on social media and resulted in a man shooting an AR-15 rifle at a pizza parlor in Washington, DC. When people feel they have a right to harm others because hate speech is being normalized online, it increases the ease with which conspiracy theories can turn into acts of violence. A platform that spreads this kind of talk and takes a laissez-faire approach not only creates an unpleasant experience for users; It can kill someone.

It’s entirely possible that Mr. Musk didn’t think very carefully about these things. He began his public display on Twitter only a few weeks ago, and since then his stated intentions have repeatedly changed, accompanied by late and misleading securities filings and contradictory statements. He enjoys trolling online, and this may have started as a joke, which was taken so seriously by the market, Twitter contributors, and the public that Mr. Musk himself began to consider it.

If this happens, it may be the dog that got into the car. Tesla stock fell in the wake of the purchase announcement, which may be a reflection of shareholder sentiment that Mr. Musk may not be able to effectively manage another company in addition to the four companies (Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink and Boring Company) he already leads.

Sophisticated moderation policies are hard to develop and enforce, and Twitter has already spent years working and trying to come up with something that works. Its current terms of service aren’t ideal, but if Mr. Musk chooses to partly or fully dismantle it, he may approach Twitter in a new way himself: aspects of the platform that are weaponized against women and minorities may not be very friendly with him either. And if the company can’t expand its user base, its worst critic may be Twitter’s only growth area.

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