FILE - Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer media award in Berlin on Dec. 1, 2020. Musk is offering to buy Twitter, Thursday, April 14, 2022. He says the social media platform he has criticized for not living up to free speech principles needs to be transformed as a private company. (Hannibal Hanschke/Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer media award in Berlin on Dec. 1, 2020. Musk is offering to buy Twitter, Thursday, April 14, 2022. He says the social media platform he has criticized for not living up to free speech principles needs to be transformed as a private company. (Hannibal Hanschke/Pool Photo via AP, File)

COLUMN: Controlling the power of a social media platform

The rise of social media platforms has provided a public forum to anyone with an internet connection

If Elon Musk is successful in his bid to take over Twitter, the social media platform could be in for some changes.

Musk, the wealthiest person in the world, has a net worth of around US$273 billion or $344 billion in Canadian funds.

His bid last week to buy the U.S. tech firm for US$43 billion – or $54 billion Canadian – is a lot of money, but it would not come close to bankrupting him.

Musk, an outspoken critic of Twitter, has said the move is not financially motivated, but rather about free speech. “Having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization,” he said recently.

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The rise of social media platforms over the past couple of decades has provided a public forum and a voice to anyone with an internet connection. It can be used to inspire and motivate, or it can be used to divide, intensify hate and to spread misinformation.

Whether social media has a positive or negative effect depends on the moral code of those who are communicating.

Unfortunately, there are some bad actors online.

Reports from the fall of 2021 showed massive troll farms were a growing problem on Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform. A troll farm is an internet content service, created with the purpose of interfering with political opinions and decision-making. According to the 2021 reports, these sites were reaching around 360 million people each week. Of the 20 most popular Christian-themed pages on Facebook, 19 were operated by troll farms.

Others, whether organized groups or lone individuals, have used Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and other platforms to spread extremist views and misinformation.

Before making any changes to a social media platform, especially changes to reduce or remove moderation, it would be wise to listen to those who are close to this industry.

Begin with Tristan Harris, the president and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit organization examining social media and online communications.

Prior to creating the Center for Humane Technology in 2013, Harris was a design ethicist at Google. He has a solid grasp on social media platforms and how they function. He is interested in structuring online communications in order to reduce the level of polarization, fake news and online addiction.

His podcast, Your Undivided Attention, provides an in-depth look into the way modern communications technology works, and the way it is affecting society.

It would also be worthwhile listening to Seth Everett and Shelly Palmer, co-hosts of Techstream. This podcast examines trends in culture and technology, and both have a lot of knowledge in this field.

While they speak with enthusiasm about advancements in technology, there’s a level of uneasiness when they discuss social media platforms aimed at young audiences. Both have raised concerns about how it is affecting their children and grandchildren.

In addition, listen to interviews with Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee. In the fall of 2021, she disclosed internal documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States and to The Wall Street Journal, showing the social media giant knew about the harmful effects of its platforms.

Each of these people and others can speak to the immense power of social media communications. Such power must be used wisely.

Musk’s comments about his reason for wanting ownership of Twitter need to be considered carefully. There is much to be said about the value of providing an online public platform where people can express their opinions and offer comments.

At the same time, it is important that such a service does not open up the floodgates of hate under the banner of free speech.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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