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What's next for Twitter now that Elon Musk has taken over

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's bring in Kate Klonick, a professor who teaches internet law and studies online speech at St. John's University in New York. Good morning.

KATE KLONICK: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Can I dwell on Musk's two seemingly contradictory statements? He wants a warm and welcoming place but also says he is a free speech absolutist. How do you manage both things?

KLONICK: Yeah, that's one of the - kind of the craziest parts of hearing those two ideas together, is that you really don't. Having an open marketplace or an open public forum really involves being able to manage speech around the margins. And that's been true in the United States. That's true of any well-regulated speech space. And public squares, everything else - there are geographical constraints, there are time constraints, there are constraints of physicality that really effectively - we are constantly monitoring and regulating ourselves. And then of course, we are OK with government having limited regulation over certain types of really terrible speech. So being a free speech absolutist doesn't really make sense if you want to have a well-regulated and safe space. That's one of the things that has taken Twitter the last 15 years to find out.

INSKEEP: Do you, from these statements, conclude that Elon Musk is not really going to be a free speech absolutist because if he needs to make some of his money back, he can't afford to be?

KLONICK: I think that that's exactly the point. There's been a lot of talk about this. And one of the main things that I have said and that I think the people who know the most have said is that it's actually just at the end of the day going to be bad for business to take a lot of the guardrails that have been put up to do content moderation down. Pepsi, Charmin - like, whatever kind of advertisers you have don't want their advertisements up next to hate speech. They don't want it up next to antisemitic speech. You know, this is bad for business, and it will lower the value of the platform. And so there has to be some catering to advertisers. And clearly, Musk understands that because he's talking directly to advertisers. But, you know, the users have to be there, too, for the advertisers to want to come to the site.

INSKEEP: You know, I want to dwell on this a little bit, and I recognize that most people in America don't use Twitter, but it's so influential. Or maybe it's just that I'm on it that I'm curious about these things. But Musk's statement - when he talked about a warm and welcoming environment, he also talked about people being able to choose the experience they have. And suddenly I had visions of maybe different Twitter channels or Twitter levels. Like, you can have the free speech version of Twitter, the extremist version of Twitter or the clean, family-oriented version of Twitter. Is that something you could imagine?

KLONICK: Yeah, they've been talking about this for a while, and there's been experimentation happening at Twitter around this. It's called the Bluesky Project, and it's kind of the idea that you would allow people to really finely craft their experience. I will say that it is technologically difficult and so probably will create a lot of friction for the average user. But there might be a series of types of filters that kind of pop out that people are able to put on top of their Twitter experience to change what they see - what they see and what they listen to every day. Of course, there are balkanization aspects to that and siloing effects in which you're just not going to have the type of diverse marketplace that you really want people to have and that is kind of created by having a one-stop shop on a lot of news feed, which is, you know, crafted enough as it is already.

INSKEEP: Is the intricate job of trying to promote free speech while also creating a warm and welcoming environment - is that at all compatible with Musk's apparent plans or reported plans to cut massive amounts of the workforce?

KLONICK: Oh, that's a great question, and the answer is absolutely not. It is - especially headed into Brazil's election on Sunday and the U.S. midterms in just 11 days, I think that the idea that you would have no one running the battleship at the key moments when we know people try to do the worst things to disrupt these platforms in real time and space - I think that is probably the most dangerous idea. And the all-hands meeting that is predicted for today and the layoffs that are predicted for today would be devastating for that.

INSKEEP: I want to talk through that because here you're talking about something that on its face is not necessarily going to be, like, you know, Nazi speech or Hitler speech or something like that. It's going to be a fake story. It's going to be a lie or a distortion or something that is put out that is spread on social media in the days right before election or the minutes right before people are voting. That is the thing that you're saying would take a very large and robust staff to catch in proper time?

KLONICK: Yeah. And it's not just catching it in proper time. It's making sure that people are aware that putting labels onto things or downranking (ph) certain types of content. So, for example, if two days before the election, something goes off on Twitter that people take seriously - about Fetterman's health or any of the other close races that are happening in the U.S. right now - that there is not enough time for basically the truth to get its boots on and to correct the record if, in fact, you know, journalists or it crosses platforms and goes to another major platform and goes viral in some way and it can't be caught - that this gets amplified to a level and people make wrong decisions and it actually influences the outcome of the election. And so I think not being able to have any type of guardrails in place, any type of reactionary, not being able to have classifiers that are catching this information or being actively updated on Twitter's end is actually - is probably maybe the scariest part of what could potentially happen. And we don't know what's going to happen, but that is definitely the worst - one of the worst-case scenarios.

INSKEEP: Is it a big deal if Donald Trump is restored to Twitter? And here's why I ask this question. As a user, I feel like Donald Trump is already back on Twitter. He's on this alternative social media site, and journalists screen grab whatever he says there, and they spread it on Twitter. I mean, he's still making news on social media in the same way that he was before. That's increasingly true.

KLONICK: Yeah, I think that that's right. I think that this is one of the things that we're seeing, is that we're developing these new markets. And if someone is important enough, his speech will be amplified. And I think that it won't be as huge a deal for Donald Trump to come back on Twitter, except that I do think that he will probably use the platform. He has always used the platform on Twitter much more than he has used his - yes, much more than he's used his Truth Social account. And so I do think that he likes the adrenaline rush, that having the millions and millions of people he can directly speak to. And so that encourages him to say more, which is in fact probably more dangerous.

INSKEEP: Just about 10 seconds left, but should any company have this much power over our speech and what gets out and what doesn't?

KLONICK: I mean, as you said before, Twitter is not that large a company. Facebook is a very large company. Google is a very large company. I mean, I think this is just the nature of the world that we live in now. And the question is not should but, like, how do we best manage it, not whether we put a stop to it at all.

INSKEEP: Kate Klonick, professor of law at St. John's University, pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

KLONICK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.