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This is Elon Musk’s opportunity to make Twitter users more open minded

As a psychologist, I argue that Musk’s insistence on free speech absolutism combined with tweaking Twitter’s algorithms could force people out of their digital cocoons.

[Source photo: Souvik Banerjee/Unsplash]

Elon Musk is one of the most widely spoken about people in the world, the richest person in the world ($266 billion), and the man behind Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, and now Twitter (as reported in Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post). His seemingly spontaneous and unfiltered tweets (which included calling a cave explorer who rescued trapped kids in Thailand a “pedo guy” and challenging Vladimir Putin to a “combat fight”) led both The Economist and The New York Times to refer to him as Silicon Valley’s Donald Trump. Whatever Musk’s intentions for acquiring Twitter, it’s clear that, unlike Trump, he won’t be banned from it now.

Shortly after purchasing Twitter, Musk noted that “a social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10% of left and right are equally unhappy.” Although there’s no reliable data to measure what the current baseline is at Twitter, Musk’s statement is a promise to uncensor Twitter from any ideological policing, and embrace an uncensored expression in its users, reminiscent of his own tweeting habits.

The question is how the remaining 80% of users may feel: Will Musk’s Twitter become anti-woke? Will it stop banning nudity, violence, and porn, which still accounts for a significant proportion of Twitter content, users, and bots? After all, Musk has described himself as a “free speech absolutist,” so perhaps we will also see a spike in hate speech, trolling, cyber-bullying, and all of the forms of antisocial behavior that already seem ubiquitous on Twitter despite its effort to curb that since 2016.

Given Musk’s unpredictability, it is safest to refrain from making any predictions about the future of Twitter, and what his fundamental influence on the social platform will be. However, an interesting question is whether he may be able to transform Twitter to make its users more open-minded, since there is wide consensus (including more than 10% on the extreme right and left) that the combination of tribalism, algorithmic news feeds, and the digital filter bubble or echo chamber may be turning a once rational and common-sensical species into a radical and obnoxious creature.

For example, Twitter’s algorithms could be tweaked to force people out of their digital cocoons. Imagine if your news feed is customized not to optimize your confirmation bias, and tell you more of what you want to hear, but more of what you are not hearing. You could expect this would be quite tortuous at first, but it may eventually help people understand other’s perspectives (and, let’s face it, the ratio of real to fake news is probably evenly distributed on both sides of the political spectrum). Experiments have shown fairly high success rates in achieving this when they temporarily force people to pop their filter bubbles. Twitter could scale this to a whole new level.

Being more open-minded requires one to be less self-centered, something that is generally harder if when you have a narcissistic personality. In the absence of any reliable psychometric evidence on Elon Musk, it is best to refrain from estimating his score. But his public persona meets most of the textbook requirements for a highly functioning narcissist: attention-seeking, self-important, overconfident, not empathetic, and megalomaniacal—even if he has the talents to back himself up.

It’s not hard to imagine that Musk’s ideal version of Twitter has more people paying attention to him than anything else. Perhaps a good excuse to make some users more open-minded is to persuade those who dislike him to like him more, or at least pay attention to him. According to Scott Galloway, Musk is far less popular (and more unpopular) among Twitter users than non-users. There’s certainly a big opportunity to win hearts and minds (unless Musk’s haters are simply replaced by fanbots, which apparently already account for a quarter of favorable Tesla tweets.)

Perhaps the single best challenge to open-mindedness—not so much for Musk, but for a big share of Twitter users—would be to see Donald Trump readmitted to the social media platform. Although Trump already stated that he will not return to Twitter even if he is invited, it would be a real success story for Musk to change Trump’s mind, and in the process make Twitter users embrace freedom of speech absolutism. Psychologically speaking, this would perhaps represent a bigger accomplishment than getting to Mars, self-driving cars, and even flying cars. Instead, we may continue to get 140 characters.

Finally, if we wanted true innovation, which is something Musk no doubt excels at, we could envision an extreme approach to free speech and open-mindedness that doesn’t even rely on people’s intention or self-presentation. Perhaps connecting Twitter to Neuralink, so that all of our thoughts are continuously and automatically reported on Twitter, no matter how dark, smart, or dumb. While this may not necessarily end up producing totally different content to what we observe on the platform today, it would at least be more efficient.

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