Elon Musk’s Twitter
On the 25th of April 2022, the shareholders of the social media platform Twitter voted to approve Elon Musk’s $44bn takeover offer. Musk wanted to make Twitter a private company to enhance free speech on the platform. In a statement announcing the deal, Musk declared that “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”. Additionally, Musk revealed plans to implement user-friendly changes to unleash Twitter’s “tremendous potential”. This blog post will discuss the praise and criticism that has followed Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover.
Right-wing criticism of Twitter’s moderation policies
Compared to its major competitors, Twitter is a relatively small but highly influential social media platform due to being popular among world leaders, celebrities, and companies alike. Due to its significant role in political discourse, Twitter’s moderation policies have been a topic of heated discussion for years. Conservative and right-wing users have argued that the platform is biased against them and censors their content, while others have raised concerns about Twitter hosting harmful content and misinformation. Nevertheless, many right-wing Twitter users, including the prominent conservative columnist Ben Shapiro, have welcomed the Elon Musk takeover. Many anticipate that Musk’s regime will be less moderated, encouraging right-wing users to celebrate a new era of free speech with less bias against them.
Musk, a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist, took to Twitter to explain that he is against censorship that goes far beyond the law. According to Musk, his deregulatory approach aims to achieve public trust and political neutrality, “which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally”. It would also render Twitter an outlier among social media platforms, as the social media giants have chosen to adopt stricter rules. The First Amendment’s protections cover hate speech unless intended and likely to cause injury. However, most social media platforms, such as Facebook, have prohibited any “violent or dehumanizing speech, harmful stereotypes, statements of inferiority, expressions of contempt, disgust or dismissal, cursing and calls for exclusion or segregation”. Twitter’s hateful conduct policy is less strict than that of Facebook’s, to begin with, only prohibiting the promotion of violence, attacking, or threatening people based on some protected categories.
Concerns arising from the takeover
Critics have expressed concerns regarding the anticipated changes. Activist groups have predicted a rise in extremism, cyberbullying, and abuse. Free speech absolutism on a platform like Twitter can have detrimental real-life consequences for extremist and malicious actors. Harassment and hate speech on the platform are likely to target the people who now fall under Twitter’s protected categories, driving minorities away from the platform. The fear of abuse could prevent people from speaking up, effectively undermining the freedom of expression that Musk claims to try to improve. Bill Gates addressed his fear of the potential rise in misinformation and conspiracy theories following the takeover deal. The most extreme risk could arise from the weaponization of social media. For example, Facebook’s indifference to hate speech, abuse, and islamophobia had a substantial impact on inciting offline violence in the Rohingya genocide. Twitter has already been criticized for its role in the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia, as it has not taken serious action on the slurs, dehumanization of people, and incitement to ethnic violence on the platform.
While Musk’s intentions may be good in neutralizing the extremely polarized (US) political situation by creating a forum for open discussion, shifting the control of such a forum to the richest person alive may not be the safest premise for ensuring freedom of speech. It is an alarming development that Musk seems to bear some responsibility for protecting the functioning of democracies. In Europe, Twitter will be bound by the Digital Services Act, which will likely enter into force in 2024. The Digital Services Act requires technology companies to better oversee the content on their platforms with moderation systems that tackle illegal material such as hate speech and incitement to terrorism. Should Twitter not comply with the Act, it may risk a ban from operating in Europe. It is still unclear what Musk’s Twitter will look like in light of the Digital Services Act, but so far, it seems that, at least to Europeans, Twitter will not be changing as much as it might seem at first glance. Due to its strong institutional and human rights frameworks, Europe is less vulnerable to the most extreme consequences of hate speech. However, the rest of the world will be vulnerable to the potential damage that might arise from the takeover.