Wharton’s Pinar Yildirim speaks with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM about how Elon Musk may handle content moderation on Twitter.

Twitter is not likely to become the unrestrained platform for free speech that Elon Musk promised when he first launched his bid to acquire the company last May.

As the new owner of the social media network, Musk now appears to be backtracking on earlier statements that he wanted to unlock Twitter’s “tremendous potential” to advance free speech. In October, he tweeted that “Twitter cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”

Musk’s tempered reversal isn’t surprising to Wharton marketing professor Pinar Yildirim, whose research focus includes social media content moderation. She said the reality of running a business is catching up to the billionaire, who must figure out how to turn a profit on a platform that pulls 90% of its revenue from advertising. Twitter has been experiencing a “massive drop” in revenue since Musk’s $44 billion deal closed last month because major sponsors have paused their ads.

Audi, General Mills, GM, Pfizer, Mondelez, United Airlines, and other companies have stepped off the platform, voicing concerns over a sudden, steep rise in hate speech and misinformation in the days after Musk took over. One research group that tracks cyber threats reported that the use of the N-word surged nearly 500% in a 12-hour period.

“[Musk] was claiming that Twitter must become the place of free speech for everyone and maybe bringing back some of these accounts that were shut down due to content moderation violation. And in the last couple of days, we’ve seen a different tone,” Yildirim said during an interview with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. “We’ve seen him now claiming that content moderation does not necessarily have to go away, Twitter doesn’t have to become a place where anyone can speak anything without any consequences, and any content moderation or policies regarding content moderation have to be done based on rules set by a committee, a council.”

She said guardrails around content give both consumers and businesses a sense of safety. That’s why content moderation is necessary, even in a digital town square devoted to public discourse.

“Consumers do not want to be on a platform overtaken by extremists, either on the right, on the left, or by people who might have inclinations to spread false, misleading information or propaganda,” Yildirim said. “At the same time, advertisers do not want to put their ads on a platform that becomes a magnet for such users.”

“Consumers do not want to be on a platform overtaken by extremists…. [At] the same time, advertisers do not want to put their ads on a platform that becomes a magnet for such users.”— Pinar Yildirim

Musk has blamed the revenue slump on a coalition of activists that is pressuring advertisers to leave, and he criticized the group for trying to “destroy free speech in America.” But the pressure from the coalition — which includes the NAACP, Muslim Advocates, GLAAD, Free Press, Common Cause, and others — seems to be working.

“What we’ve seen recently, since the change on Twitter has been announced, is the amount of hate speech increase significantly,” Dirk Van de Put, CEO of snack food company Mondelez International, told Reuters. “We felt there is a risk our advertising would appear next to the wrong messages. As a consequence, we have decided to take a pause and a break until that risk is as low as possible.”

A Market-based Approach

Yildirim said advertisers are also uncertain about what Twitter will ultimately look like under Musk, so they are waiting until the direction of the company is clear. She said two main elements paramount to Twitter’s survival are revenue and content moderation.

Twitter, or any social media platform, could invoke an outright ban on any conversation regarding certain hot-button topics or offensive viewpoints. But that’s an extreme approach to content moderation, she said. A more consumer-friendly approach would be to allow users to curate content to filter out what they do not want to read or what they may find offensive. Or Twitter could enable users to set up their own sub-communities where they could control the members and the topics up for discussion or debate.

“This is a much more market-based approach to content moderation,” she said. “My feeling, based on the statement that came out, is that this is the approach they are going to take, creating these spaces that are driven by the preferences of individual users.”

The professor said a curated design could be successful for Twitter because it would keep consumers on board, which would be attractive to advertisers.

“This may not be 100% solving their problems, in the sense that you might still find some potentially extreme or misleading content in some small communities. And the question would be, do you take an action toward that particular content?” she said. “That’s a decision the business can make in line with their objectives once they see how big a problem it is. As long as it’s confined, the issue is much smaller in terms of scale, and that would be pleasing to advertisers.”