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Why what happens with twitter matters to everyone

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As of yesterday, the world's richest man, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk, has now officially become the owner of another company - Twitter. He immediately fired key executives, including the CEO, in a clear sign that he wants to overhaul the social media company.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Which is important because, although Twitter is used by fewer than 1 in 4 U.S. adults, it has a way of making things important.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

SUMMERS: During the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring, it acted like a megaphone, communicating to the world outside the Middle East and North Africa what was happening on the ground.

CHANG: But it was also where election misinformation and conspiracy theories reached a much larger audience after the 2020 vote, ultimately contributing to the U.S. Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.

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DONALD TRUMP: We're going to walk down, and I'll be there with you. We're going to walk down.

SUMMERS: But the platform that allowed former President Trump to spread lies over and over is the same one that Black Lives Matter activists use to call out injustices and call for accountability and call on supporters for nationwide protests.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter.

CHANG: In other words, what happens on Twitter doesn't always stay on Twitter. For more on that, I spoke earlier today with Shannon McGregor. She's a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Media.

SHANNON MCGREGOR: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. So you pointed out this morning on Twitter itself that most people out there are not on Twitter. But let me ask you to explain why Twitter matters, like, even to people who don't use the platform.

MCGREGOR: So like you said, most people are not on Twitter. But the reason it matters who runs it, what the content moderation policies are is because this platform in particular plays a really outsized role in journalism and politics. Journalists are on Twitter. Politicians, candidates, activists are on Twitter. So what happens on Twitter often becomes what is the news. And what happens on Twitter informs decisions that politicians make and shapes the way then that many more people who are not on Twitter come to understand what's happening in the world.

CHANG: What main examples come to mind when you think of the outsized role Twitter can play, whether we're talking about politics, journalism, democracy?

MCGREGOR: Yeah. I mean, I think we can think of exciting and depressing examples. For instance, you know, I think often of how important Twitter was for the #MeToo movement, when millions of women, you know, shared their experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCGREGOR: ...In a way that I think made people feel not so alone in that and really raised awareness about the need to change things in that area. But I also think about, you know, all the lies around not only the 2020 election but around the way our elections are run more broadly that led up to the attempted coup on January 6 and that continue to undermine these mid-term elections that are upcoming.

CHANG: Well, now that Elon Musk is at the helm of Twitter, tell me; what will you be looking out for with how he tries to change Twitter's policies? Let's talk about what he's already done and what you suspect he will eventually do.

MCGREGOR: Well, he's already sort of cleaned house at the C-suite level - right? - firing several executives. And he's promised that he wants to make this more of a sort of, quote-unquote, "free speech zone." And that means that we're likely to see him change the content moderation policies to be more forgiving, to allow more types of speech that's not currently allowed. Two things I'll be looking for is how quickly that happens, that content moderation change, and whether or not, even before that officially happens, if other people who are already on sort of the border of pushing that line continue to push it further assuming that this change is coming.

CHANG: Well, as you have already mentioned, Elon Musk is someone who says he champions the First Amendment. He calls himself a free speech absolutist. And I'm just wondering, you know, if that is going to be his governing principle - to make Twitter some free-for-all marketplace of ideas without any constraints or very, very few constraints - how do you think that could ultimately change the influence that Twitter has on society, on democracy?

MCGREGOR: I think that one of the things that might change is when, you know, there's less guardrails around content moderation. What we see on other platforms that have less guardrails is that it can very quickly turn into a place that is filled with some of the most vile thoughts that can be imagined, that people are attacked and harassed even more than they are already on Twitter as it currently is. And frankly, that's not the type of social media platform that most people are interested in. And so I think that may over time decrease its influence in journalism, in politics, in our country and in the other countries where it plays a big role because I think ultimately that's just not a space that people want to be in.

CHANG: That is Shannon McGregor, political communications scholar at the University of North Carolina. Thank you very much.

MCGREGOR: Thank you.

CHANG: After our conversation, Elon Musk tweeted the company will form, quote, "a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.