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What Harvard’s Joan Donovan thinks about the future of Twitter

The popular social media platform will likely never be the same, says Harvard’s Joan Donovan.

Joan Donovan, a disinformation researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School, weighed in on the bid to buy Twitter Monday morning.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

What started as an improbable bid to buy Twitter by Elon Musk is suddenly a done deal.

And everyone on Twitter is weighing in, including Joan Donovan.

The disinformation researcher studies “media manipulation” and “adversarial media movements” with 20 colleagues as the research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy. Both locally and nationally, Donovan is at at the forefront of misinformation academic research: on COVID, critical race theory, white supremacy, and more.

On Monday morning, she used that expertise to critique Musk’s $43 billion offer for Twitter — in a Twitter thread (of course). Just hours later, Musk became the official owner of the platform.


Here’s what Donovan thinks the future holds:

1. Content moderation will be likely limited further.

At this point, Twitter has long been “a polarization machine,” Donovan tweeted. Users have demanded increased content moderation over time to ease some — though not all — of the harassment and disinformation that blossoms on the website.

But Musk has been vocal about having platforms interfere less with content. In Donovan’s words, Musk wants a mandate for “free speech,” as he defines it.

“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,” Musk posted after the deal was announced Monday afternoon.

Musk’s interpretation of how to ensure free speech, Donovan said, would likely exacerbate harassment and culture wars.

“Musk’s desire to make it private probably means lots of cuts to those working on [content moderation] and corporate policies,” she wrote. “Musk sees [content moderation] as a tool for censoring, not customer service.”

In a phone interview, Donovan added content moderation teams have been a force behind Twitter timelines, controlling scams, pornographic content, and data harvesting efforts for over a decade. Now, the future of “platform studies” — a behind-the-scenes but crucial component of the online landscape — hangs in the balance.


“It will come under fire in a new way and the politicization of content moderation may continue,” she said. “That’s going to put us in a situation of the race to the bottom in social media.”

2. It’s not just business.

Donovan called the sale an “interesting way to do politics by other means.“

She went so far to say that Musk would likely allow President Donald Trump to revive his Twitter account, which the platform permanently suspended shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection, on grounds Trump incited violence. And that, Donovan theorized, could help him fuel another run for the presidency in 2024.

3. Could crypto find a home on Twitter? Maybe.

A Musk takeover could contribute to the rise of cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence on Twitter, Donovan said, potentially turning the platform into an unregulated financial marketplace.

“Musk could use customer data to develop cryptocurrency and AI tools,” she wrote, eventually creating a space for “social banking.”

What that would look like in its final form is unclear, but Donovan imagines that Twitter could allow in-app purchases with a form of payment that could easily be translated into dollars and cents.

It happened once before when Facebook launched Libra, the digital Facebook currency that fell out of favor with users in 2019. Today, the culture around cryptocurrency has changed, even as the market remains volatile, and Musk is a proponent of Bitcoin and Dogecoin.


She urged lawmakers to amp up regulation in preparation for a future where crypto is an essential component of Twitter. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen recently advocated for increased policing of crypto, and President Biden signed an executive order on digital assets in March.

“Politicians should probably line up some regulation on social media banking, so that when Twitter does reach its final form, there’s some semblance of rules governing it,” Donovan tweeted.

The move would be a “natural step” for social media companies — and for Musk in particular.

“Musk has long been the champion of anti-establishment, anti-authority, and making his own rules,” she added in a phone interview. “And there’s no greater subversion of the government than to deface its currency and undermine its economy in such a way.”

4. Twitter won’t be the same.

Say goodbye to the Twitter you once knew.

In the end, the platform is a product, Donovan said, and putting Musk at the helm will inherently alter its value.

“The creation of divisive content, fear of being moderated, and desire to keep fundraising are very intertwined, particularly for the worst of the worst offenders,” Donovan wrote.“Changing the balance of these three variables will also change the reputation (& value) of the product too.”

What could be in the cards is an app that replaces Twitter entirely. The “HUGE if” now, she tweeted, is whether someone can “build a stable alternative.”

Still, it would take years for a competing app to reach a similar scale of users.


A strategy that benefitted Parler, a far-right social media platform, was “a grow-at-any-cost mindset” and the support of conservative politicians and mainstream news outlets, she added. The site had been downloaded using the App Store and Google Play at least 11 million times by June 2021, according to Forbes, though interest plummeted soon thereafter.

Users may be more keen to transfer to a new website, Donovan said, if “it had an interface where you could re-upload all of your networking connections and potentially even all the posts that you’ve made, so that you don’t lose that posting history.”

Diti Kohli can be reached at her @ditikohli_.