From swaying elections to facilitating harassment mobs to scams, spambots are notorious in the online ecosystem. Recently, however, they received another dubious honor: they were at the center of the drama when Elon Musk tried, almost succeeded, and then decided he didn’t want to buy Twitter after all.
The alleged crux of this dispute is the scale of Twitter’s bot problem: Twitter claims that no more than 5 percent of accounts on its platform are bots; Musk claims it’s much higher.
He says bots undermine Twitter’s integrity and it needs to do more to get rid of them in order to trust the platform. And if Twitter turns out to have fewer real users, it could be worth a lot less in lost ad revenue.
This scramble isn’t about bots, it’s about power. The fiasco made it clear that the system of how our de facto public spaces are controlled is broken. It is an example of three core questions at the heart of who holds power over social media platforms today.
First, who can see the inner workings of social media platforms, about what, and why?
Researchers have been calling for more transparency from social media giants for years. But after Musk initially shelved the deal, Twitter offered him real-time access to all of his tweets — the Firehose API — to assess bot proliferation. This is currently only available to a few companies paying big bucks.
So, having money doesn’t just mean you have access to more data — when you have enough, it gives you the power to set the agenda where transparency matters.
If you’ve decided that spambots are the most worrying thing about Twitter, you can make it the most worrying thing about Twitter: even though the harms users suffer can have many and varied causes that deserve attention. There is clear evidence that the existing transparency is not sufficient and that financial risk, rather than the public interest, imposes greater transparency.
Second, how do we protect free speech online and who decides what that looks like?
After years of trying to improve the way Twitter dealt with issues like hate and abuse online, and with a long way to go, Musk positioned his acquisition as the return of free speech to the platform.
This left many fearing it would mean acquittal for harm and abuse on the platform.
But what also shaped his approach is that no one knows exactly what the plans would be, or even the outcomes — whether it might actually lead to alternative, community-based forms of moderation, or encourage openness on the platform, which ultimately makes things safer could.
The real problem is that “free speech protection” should not be dictated by the whims of a very powerful, very wealthy individual.
These are issues that have been the source of intense debate and investigation for many years. So far, there is no consensus on how a democratically empowered regulator should address these issues.
Third, and most fundamentally, it shows how incredibly unequally distributed power is across the online space. This is of serious concern when these spaces are also central to public discourse.
Musk already enjoys far more power on Twitter than the average user simply because of his fame.
Disputing Twitter’s claims of bot proliferation, Musk, in a series of increasingly bizarre interventions on Twitter, appealed to other users to crowdsource the proportion of bots in various samples of accounts.
More recently, he tweeted memes of himself, laughing at the situation and claiming that Twitter must now disclose its bot account information in court.
That’s not what governance should be: a parody of openness, but without any semblance of legitimate authority or accountability.
The future of Twitter is uncertain: It will not be determined by Twitter users, those affected by Twitter or even Twitter employees, but by memes and lawsuits.
The intricate details of a Musk acquisition aren’t what we should worry about — this acquisition shows us what power structures are at play, meaning the democratic outlook for our online spaces is bleak. (© Independent News Service)
Ellen Judson heads the UK Center for the Analysis of Social Media
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/musk-row-raises-questions-about-future-of-free-speech-41838424.html Musk Row raises questions about the future of free speech