Contained in 95 pages of dense legalese, Twitter’s warning to Elon Musk was clear: don’t use your considerable power on the social media platform to attack the company.
The world’s richest man and owner-in-waiting of Twitter signed a deal for the planned $44billion (£35billion) takeover last week, confirming he can tweet about the deal as long as “these tweets don’t disparage the company or any of its representatives”.
Yet hours later, the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” was engaging in tweets criticizing senior Twitter executives, including an interaction with a political podcast host who had called the legal chief of the company, Vijaya Gadde, of Twitter’s “top censorship advocate”.
The inevitable consequence for Gadde has been one of social media’s darkest phenomena: a pile-up. The comments included calls for her to lose her job and, in a typical example of nasty digital hyperbole, statements that Gadde would “go down in history as an appalling person”.
Announcing the deal to buy Twitter last week, Musk said: “Free speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital public square where issues vital to the future are debated. of humanity.” Musk has a history of controversial tweets, but his post about Gadde has fueled concerns among some about the Tesla CEO’s idea of free speech. Will this come at the expense of protecting Twitter users from abuse, cyberbullying, and extremist content?
“I think Musk’s conception of free speech is both contradictory and stupid,” says Jillian York, free speech activist and author of Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Capitalist Surveillance. “Absolutism on a platform like Twitter ignores the very real damage Twitter can cause as a global platform, such as being used by malicious actors like Isis and right-wing extremists.” She adds that there is a difference between the idea of free speech embodied in standing on a platform at Speakers’ Corner in London and online, where you can “scream into the void to billions of people. She says, “Platforms like Twitter are a whole different animal and you’re talking about someone’s ability to ruin someone’s life in an instant.”
Gadde’s post prompted an outpouring of expressions of support and criticism of Musk from current and former employees. A group of female Twitter workers, under the handle @TwitterWomen, posted “Twitter women are the best of us” while the platform’s former chief executive, Dick Costolo, accused the billionaire of “doing an executive in the company you just bought the target of harassment and threats”.
There is also speculation that Musk will allow banned figures to return to the platform, including former President Donald Trump, who denied wanting to return after his account was permanently suspended in January 2021. Nonetheless, The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Musk was “appalled” that Trump remains banned. The Center for Countering Digital Hate, an American-British campaign group, said the reinstatement of people such as Trump, far-right pundit Katie Hopkins and InfoWars founder Alex Jones would mean that Twitter safety rules “no longer exists”.
The deal, which is backed by the board but has to be approved by shareholders, has also raised concerns that one person controls such an important platform. Twitter is important even if the majority of its 217 million daily users get their news elsewhere. In Europe, just 9% of people use Twitter for news, compared to 12% in North America, 14% in the UK and 35% in Africa, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) in Oxford University. But those who use Twitter are the political and media equivalent of influencers – journalists, commentators, celebrities and politicians.
“The fact that many politicians, powerful individuals and pundits are frequent users, and that some journalists present what they say in their reporting, means that Twitter is clearly an important part of how the political and media agenda is defined,” says Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of RISJ. “In that sense, a wealthy business tycoon who owns it raises the same kinds of issues as wealthy people controlling influential news outlets or other social media platforms. It is a political question how each country wants to regulate this property.
The deal is not expected to come under scrutiny from U.S. competition authorities, but politicians are beginning to address internet regulation and free speech concerns who accompany him. Historic laws are being introduced in the UK and EU and they will directly impact the shape of Musk’s Town Square.
In another post-agreement tweet last week, Musk acknowledged that each state’s conception of free speech would trump his own. He wrote: “By ‘freedom of speech’ I simply mean what is within the law. I am against censorship which goes far beyond the law. But the law – in the UK and the EU – is about to change.
In the UK, the government is introducing the Online Safety Bill, which imposes a duty of care on technology companies to protect users from harmful content. Some of the content it covers is already banned by people like Twitter, especially posts that contain criminal elements in the offline world, such as terrorist or child pornography. But it will also require big platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and TikTok to deal with “legal but harmful” content – in other words, posts that fall below the criminal threshold but can still cause psychological or physical harm. It has alarmed free speech advocates (York calls it ‘dystopian’) but Musk will have to comply – UK communications regulator Ofcom could fine companies up to 10% or their turnover for breaking the law.
“Services that operate in the UK are subject to UK regulations. Online platforms are no different from services in other industries. Once enacted, Twitter will have to convince Ofcom that it meets user protection obligations,” says Maeve Walsh, a policy consultant who helped shape the regulatory framework behind the bill.
At the same time, the EU is implementing the Digital Services Act (DSA), which requires major social media platforms to do more to tackle illegal content. This includes requiring them to allow users to report such content in a “simple and effective” way so that it can be quickly removed. “Twitter, even owned by Mr Musk, has to moderate content to comply with EU rules. If he wants to do business in the EU, that’s a fact,” says Christel Schaldemose, Danish MEP and chief negotiator of the DSA.
In the United States, content moderation has been a hotly debated topic among lawmakers for years. Although there is some bipartisan support for the reforms, the question of how and whether platforms should be held accountable for content posted on their sites remains controversial.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 currently exempts platforms from liability for content posted by others. Both Trump and President Joe Biden have declared their support for Section 230 reform, although for different reasons. Republicans have claimed, largely without evidence, that right-wing voices are being censored while Democrats claim the platforms host harmful content, misinformation and harmless misinformation.
But campaigners say reforming or repealing Section 230 could do more harm than good: it could prompt companies to remove large swathes of posts, even if they are not harmful, for fear of breaking the law – perhaps in the process by denying oppressed groups one of their most powerful platforms.
“Section 230 is a foundational law for human rights and free speech around the world,” says Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight for the Future. “Regardless of what Musk wants to do, changing Section 230 would make it even harder for platforms like Twitter to moderate harmful content through a human rights framework, and more likely for platforms to remove large swaths of content. legitimate content in order to avoid disputes.
The agreement to buy Twitter also contains a $1 billion breach fee, which could be payable by either party depending on the circumstances of the breach of the agreement. As it becomes increasingly clear that implementing his vision of free speech faces significant hurdles, Musk may consider it worth paying.