Twitter’s commercial business model is at odds with achieving a completely ethical platform for free speech, experts have warned.

Elon Musk, who is in the process of buying the social media giant, has said he wants to look at how information on the site is moderated.

Musk has called Twitter a “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”.

If Twitter is a town square, we are the products for sale on the tables, Dr Luke Zaphir told Central News.

Twitter was trading around $70 a share last July before hitting a low of $30 this February. With Musk offering a buyout at $54.20 a share, the board has agreed to present the bid to shareholders.

Twitter shareholders could still reject the overall transaction valued at about $44 billion, but the situation shows a business model under stress. 

Participants or products


“We can’t treat [Twitter] the Agora in Athens, where we’ve come to share our ideas on the perfect world. It’s there so that someone can advertise to us.”

Zaphir, a political philosopher at the University of Queensland, suggests that the tech business model evolved faster than our ethics. 

Woman seeing ads on social media

The platform’s design, limiting comments to 280 characters and promoting content that draws the most attention, discourages serious public reasoning. As a by-product of trying to keep our eyes on the screen, it intensifies polarisation. 

A better billionaire?

Musk’s recent tweets suggest he’s optimistic about a range of improvements, including:

Zaphir said Musk presents socialist ideas, regardless of how thought out they are.

“Perhaps the world is better for having Elon Musk owning Twitter than some other oligarch who would deliberately drive the polarisation for profit.”

Canadian tech-pundit, Richard Campbell, isn’t so optimistic. He is cautious of the billionaire’s premature ideas about content moderation. 

“He’s an impulsive child with $200 billion.”

Campbell highlights that Twitter is already working within the strict EU legislation. By loosening moderation and taking the company private, Musk may be liable for the content shared – and its consequences. 

Quality control and ‘cancel culture’

Dr Peter Ellerton, another Queensland-based philosophy professor, suggests that Musk draws a false equivalent between one’s knowledge and anyone’s opinion.

Trump's Twitter

“We’ve always recognised that your right to free speech stops at someone else’s right to be safe. Wrapping it up and calling it ‘cancel culture’ is intellectually lazy,” Ellerton told CN. 

Experts fear that loosening regulations might trigger a repeat of events like the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. Facebook failed to prevent hate speech, misinformation and disinformation from circulating, costing the tech giant $150 billion.

Utopian Twitter won’t “fire the neurotransmitters”

Ellerton says that platforms for critical academic discussion exist, such as Kialo, but they are niche. 

“Places for genuine discussion don’t fire the neurotransmitters like social media,” Ellerton said.

The experts who spoke to CN agree that making social media platforms a public utility would need a change in their business model. Algorithms can’t be designed for democratic discussion and maximum engrossment. 

“Are we at the point where we acknowledge we no longer want to be the product?” Richard Campbell asks. He suggests paying for social media would remove the need for sensationalism.

“The algorithms can’t just promote things with 1000 retweets that are sexy to read. We need a range, and we need information about the accuracy along with the range,” said Zaphir. 

Zaphir said that more regulation, not less, is the best way forward. He suggests a rating system similar to the film industry so that audiences can understand the risks associated with each type of content. 

“We can fix it. But it’ll take the combined effort of all of us together saying our democracy matters more than any individual tweet I want to send.”

Images purchased from Shutterstock.