Elon Musk Wants to Make Twitter’s Algorithm Open Source, Enable Free Speech
21:07 GMT 14.04.2022 (Updated: 13:01 GMT 14.04.2023)
© AP Photo / Hannibal HanschkeTesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer media award in Berlin on Dec. 1, 2020. As Twitter’s newest board member and largest shareholder, Musk is already floating suggestions for changes he’d like to see on the social media platform. In a series of tweets late Saturday, April 9, 2022, Musk said that the company should include an “authentication checkmark” as a feature of its Twitter Blue premium subscription service, which costs $3 a month.
© AP Photo / Hannibal Hanschke
Twitter and other social media sites have been struggling with regulating speech on their platforms. Billionaire Elon Musk has been advocating for free speech in public forms and made a bid to purchase Twitter earlier today.
Hours after publicly making a bid to buy Twitter outright for $41.3 billion and days after becoming its largest stock holder, Elon sat down for a long form interview during TED2022 Conference in Vancouver where he explained his vision for the social media company.
Musk called Twitter a “town square” and that having free speech in that space is important for civilization’s survival, though he emphasized that Twitter, like all public forums, are beholden to the laws of the countries they operate out of. Calling for direct violence on someone would not get a free pass on Musk’s Twitter, but most other forms of speech would.
“I think when in doubt, let the speech exist. If it is a gray area, let the tweet exist,” the world’s richest man said. “Maybe if it’s controversial, don’t promote the tweet. I’m not saying I have all the answers here. I do think that we want to be very reluctant to delete things and be very cautious with permanent bans. I think time outs are better than permanent bans.”
Critical to Musk’s vision is open sourcing Twitter’s algorithm that decides which tweets get promoted or demoted.
“I think the issue is having a black box algorithm that promotes some things and not other things. I think it can be quite dangerous. I think the code should be on Github, so people can look through it and say ‘I see a problem here, I don’t agree with this,’ then they can highlight issues and suggest changes.”
Open source software is when code is posted in a public forum, most commonly but not necessarily on sites like Github, that enables anyone to audit and suggest changes to the code. Programmers can also copy the code, make changes and use it for their own projects in a process called “forking.”
Some of the most popular software in the world is open sourced. The operating system Linux is a prime example, but there are others. The web browser Firefox, the messaging app Signal, the coding language Python, the graphics and animation tool Blender, Bitcoin and most other cryptocurrencies are all open source software.
Typically, successful open source projects are more secure, and often more feature-rich than their closed source counterparts. With potentially thousands or tens of thousands of programmers looking over the public code, bugs and vulnerabilities are quickly sussed out.
If Musk doesn’t accept those changes, the algorithm will be out there free for anyone to take, use and modify on their own social media site.
“It won't be perfect. But we want to have the perception and reality that speech is as free as reasonably possible. A good sign of free speech is that if someone you don’t like is allowed to say something you don’t like. And it is damn annoying when someone you don’t like says something you don’t like. That is a sign of a healthy functioning free speech situation.”
But what about critics who worry that having the world’s richest man hold the keys to the world’s most popular “town square,” the interviewer asked.
“You have Mark Zuckerberg owning Facebook*, Instagram and Whatsapp and a share ownership structure that will have Mark Zuckerberg the fourteenth still controlling those entities. Quite literally. We won’t have that at Twitter.”
The multibillionaire also stressed that he would not be editing tweets himself and that the important thing is that everyone knows how the algorithm works and the platform is open about it when things are changed, demoted or promoted.
The talk then moved on to Musk’s other plans for Twitter, including the often requested edit button. Musk said it is definitely coming if he has his way. To avoid people taking advantage of likes and retweets of a popular statement by editing their tweet to say something else entirely, Musk suggested that he may make it so editing a tweet clears out its retweets and likes. He may also limit the amount of time the edit button is available on a tweet.
Asked if he had the funding secured to buy Twitter, the world’s richest man simply replied “I have sufficient assets,” a comment that brought laughter to the crowd.
Besides Twitter, Musk also talked about his fights with the SEC, robot butlers, Tesla’s past, Dogecoin, and what he thinks it will take to make sustainable energy a reality.
*Facebook is an organization banned in Russia