Elon Musk's expected takeover of Twitter has inspired some justifiable concerns about what that will mean for the site’s approach to abusive language.
It’s easy to see why: Musk has a history of attacking other Twitter users and encouraging his sycophantic followers — and a swarm of bots — to do the same. It also seems likely Musk will allow right-wing hatemongers, like former President Donald Trump and other conservative figures who’ve been banned from the site, to return and wreak havoc.
But as worrying as all this is, the idea of what Musk might do with all of the personal data that Twitter stores should be perhaps most concerning.
By default, Twitter saves your interactions on the platform, including your tweets and direct messages. And if you grant it access, it also collects information about everyone in your phone’s address book. Twitter knows locations where you've tweeted, devices you’ve used, and other websites you frequent.
The idea of this information living in a spreadsheet or some database that Musk can potentially pore over and use for nefarious purposes is scary on its own. But so is the very real possibility that Musk sells that data to some other entity with more dubious plans than even he could think up.
Cambridge Analytica embodies those concerns. The political marketing firm hired by Trump’s 2016 campaign became infamous a few years back for harvesting millions of Facebook users' private information. Following an investigation into the firm’s data practices, Twitter banned Cambridge Analytica from purchasing ads on the site in 2018.
But who knows? Maybe Musk views that ban and restrictions like it as violations of free speech. Maybe he has no qualms about letting manipulative companies, lawmakers or even governments run wild on the platform, nudging users to any number of schemes and wretched beliefs. He already holds a sophomoric view of free speech that suggests hateful — even harmful — language should have a place in our discourse. It’s not a stretch to think Musk, being the capitalist he is, would give advertisers free rein to manipulate — and all the data they could wish for to make that possible.
In the wrong hands, our personal data could be used for blackmail, to target us with physical violence, or even bombard us with ads that, over time, wear down our ability to make decisions of our own volition.