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A MUST for all Musks: How science can guide effective social media regulation

In October 2022, Elon Musk purchased Twitter, declaring that “the bird is freed” and that freedom of expression would be a priority on his platform. Although little is known about Musk’s understanding of free speech, many feared that his policies would lead to a neglect in the moderation of harmful content, ranging from disinformation to hate speech. Fomenting these fears, Musk reinstated users who had been banned for violating the platform’s rules on election misinformation and incitement to violence; retweeted fake news about the attack on House Speaker Pelosi’s husband; spread disinformation about Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council; promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory; and suspended the accounts of several journalists; and opened the blue check mark, previously reserved for verified accounts, to paid subscribers, leading to a proliferation of fake accounts.

In this article, we discuss this climate of uncertainty in the Twittersphere, and beyond. We argue that science could help policymakers understand which regulations work and what their unintended consequences can be, whether they are internal platform policies or rules imposed by legislation. A rigorous scientific approach could prevent much of the chaos that we are currently witnessing as Musk tries new approaches that scare away advertisers and users.

To address these challenges, we need a clear, traceable, and replicable methodology to craft and evaluate policy recommendations for preventing and curbing abuse. Our research project CARISMA aims to generate recommendations and quantitative evidence to classify regulatory policies and assess their expected impact within the information ecosystem. Such an effort may form the basis, for platforms and regulators of any country, to design timely, transparent, and effective policy interventions to mitigate social media abuse.

But there is much work to do. Platforms that will be affected by existing and proposed regulatory legislation should support researchers and policymakers in their work to quickly understand these phenomena and reduce harm. Studies of clear and effective regulation, aligned with law, are a must for the current and future Musks of our society.