Elon Musk’s Twitter is ‘stirring up’ digital polarisation, says Bill Gates

A “seat-of-the-pants” decision-making style at Twitter since Elon Musk’s takeover is worsening digital polarisation, according to Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the world’s largest private philanthropic organisation.

“I wish I had the grand answer for this one, because it seems more unclear now than even a year ago,” Gates told the Financial Times when asked whether the challenge of combating such divisions was an engineering challenge or a matter of human judgment.

“I think, certainly, the Twitter situation is stirring things up. That, instead of an objective set of measures done by a broad group of people, you’re sort of seeing seat-of-the-pants type activity,” he added.

Twitter has been in turmoil since Musk bought it for $44bn in October. Advertisers have left the social media platform over concerns about his content moderation strategy, and Musk polled users this week over whether he should step down as chief executive.

Gates, the world’s fourth-richest person, whose donations to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have taken his net worth below that of Musk, said social media platforms “need to focus on the things that incite riots or lead to huge misconceptions about the safety” of vaccines or masks, or those types of things.”

He said that it was, for example, “daunting [for] even a fair-minded person with the world’s best technology and infinite staffing budget” to distinguish between appropriately skeptical vaccine research and conspiracy theories that charge “the people who make these vaccines are just trying to get rich, even [if] they cause net negative health effects.”

In an annual letter released on Tuesday, Gates lists polarized US politics as one of the factors reversing progress on global health challenges from polio to malaria, alongside the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine, inflation and climate change.

“The degree to which global health is off the agenda is a big concern to me,” he said in the interview. Foreign aid was likely to go through a sustained dip as donor countries absorbed the “extraordinary expenses” flowing from the Ukraine war, he said, while many African countries would find it harder to obtain the debt financing on which some depend.

The US, which gives more aid than any other country but a smaller share than European donors as a portion of gross domestic product, “absolutely could do more,” he said.

More funding was also needed to prepare for the next pandemic, Gates said, admitting that it was “frustrated” at the lack of attention the need for better diagnostic tests and detection was receiving. He likened the post-Covid challenge to the 20th century task of postwar reconstruction.

“After World War II, what the world did was actually pretty impressive. So far, the response has been more like what happened after World War I, which was not that impressive. I hope this isn’t saying that. . . you need two pandemics before you take it seriously,” he said.

Gates transferred a further $20bn to the foundation he runs with his ex-wife Melinda this year, aiming to increase its annual spending from $6bn to $9bn by 2026 to mitigate the reversals to progress on global health, climate change and education.

He expressed optimism about several innovations supported by the foundation, from cheaper gene therapies to artificial intelligence-powered ultrasound devices for women in low-income settings. But he had questions about two technologies that have hit public consciousness in recent weeks.

Last week’s announcement that an experimental fusion reactor in California had achieved a net energy gain for the first time was “a reminder to people that innovation is happening, and we can be surprised on the positive side,” said Gates. His Breakthrough Energy group funds companies working on both fusion and fission technologies.

However, he added, the milestone achievement had not changed his expectations of how long it would take to make such clean energy sources viable at scale. “We’re still decades away from having a high probability of fusion being a source of cheap electricity,” he said, adding: “I think fission has a more straightforward path.”

Similarly, he predicted that artificial intelligence advances such as ChatGPT, a generative AI tool from the Microsoft-backed OpenAI, would have positive effects such as improving medical diagnoses and cutting the time it takes to find information for complex legal cases.

However, he added, “it really will change a lot of white-collar jobs” while making it harder for teachers to mark students’ papers written with the aid of such tools. Next year would bring more debate about the downsides of AI, he said: “There are definitely dilemmas that come with all the positive effects.”

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