Elon Musk’s effort to acquire Twitter passed an important milestone yesterday when Twitter’s Board of Directors recommended to accept his offer to buy the company for 44 billion USD. It is no secret that Musk is unhappy with the direction Twitter is going in and decisions that have been made in how the platform is regulated. By analyzing his statements regarding the acquisition, we can see that there may soon be ramifications for OSINT practitioners and those who engage in online campaigns.
In the official press release accompanying the announcement of Twitter’s board of directors, Musk said “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated… I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spambots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
Freedom of Speech on Twitter
If Musk intends to operate Twitter as the “digital town square,” this could mean more lax rules in terms of content that is taken down by the platform. Currently, the “report” function is abused, and if enough users report another user or a tweet, the “offensive” content is taken down by the platform. The age of mass reporting may be over. Additionally, we could see hateful content not get deleted, which could come back and haunt their authors later in life. In the current situation, people are sometimes publicly embarrassed (or worse) by offensive tweets they wrote over a decade ago. If the most offensive content, which until now was deleted by the platform, remains on the platform — it could have consequences down the road.
API Wars: OSINT vs. Campaigners?
The opening of Twitter’s algorithms to the public could have a few implications both for OSINT researchers and campaigners. For OSINT researchers, it could provide a better understanding of how content spreads and why certain content goes viral. This knowledge can also be exploited by technically savvy campaigners, and we could see exactly how the continuous battle between campaigners and developers plays out.
Along with this, we could potentially see Twitter’s API opened back up, paving the way for better abilities to research Twitter. This will also potentially facilitate more tools that can automate mass activity, which could be exploited by campaigners looking to artificially enhance the impact of their campaigns.
The Authentication Revolution: Who Wins and Who Loses?
By requiring all humans to authenticate, we could see a radical change in the Twitter landscape. Up until now, it was considered legitimate to have an anonymous account. There are influencer accounts with tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers, despite being completely anonymous. If these people are forced to reveal themselves, OSINT analysts could lose vital sources of information in areas where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not freedoms protected by the regime. On a day-to-day basis, OSINT analysts may lose the ability to anonymously or semi-anonymously research Twitter, both with Twitter’s in-house capabilities (the main platform, Tweetdeck) and external tools. Campaigners will suffer, as it will become much more difficult to operate unattributed campaigns, campaigns artificially boosted by paid engagement, and “bot armies.”
We may see new ways of identifying Twitter handlers, such as through the use of blockchain authentication. This will increase dramatically the legal liability of community members but will reduce the number of those participating within the community.
In conclusion, it is too early to predict the future. It could be that the acquisition will not go through. Even if it goes through, we do not know how (if at all) Twitter will change. But if Twitter does change, do not act surprised.