TWITTER is, in Elon Musk’s words, the ‘de facto public town square’. Should we worry it is now owned by the world’s richest man? This takeover has important implications for how we think about free speech, our discourse and independence of publication platforms from powerful owners.
There is consensus that newspaper owners should not be able to control or stifle editorial independence. Twitter’s model presents a twist: there is no buffer of an editorial board and everyone has their say. With more than 80 million followers, Musk can exert significant influence. A lot of people seem to think Musk owning Twitter means he will likely not be censored. He can promote viewpoints or ridicule at will. This is a credibility issue and if Twitter’s policies are applied in shadowy ways, it will become harder to believe in Musk’s proclaimed ‘pathological’ obsession with the truth.
While Musk should continue to receive scrutiny, his ownership of Twitter need not lead to assumptions about misuse of position. Him picking on certain Twitter employees (including the woman who heads Twitter’s legal department) does little to assuage concerns about bad behaviour, yet hurting a platform’s credibility after buying it would not make business or strategic sense.
He does want to influence Twitter’s content regulation. He has no issues being called a ‘free speech absolutist’; no one has ever been able to give a coherent description of what the term means. And his approach to content issues (if in doubt, let the tweet stay) doesn’t take us very far.
Musk needs to be bold to protect the vulnerable.
Marginalised groups and citizens face severe abuse, harassment and threats on Twitter. Relaxing content control could risk alienating many. Musk recently said by ‘free speech’ he means speech allowed by the law. The law in that reference is the First Amendment, which determines restrictions on state action interfering with speech. A private corporation is free to consider different standards. For a marketplace of ideas to exist, he needs to ensure people want to come to the market. Content regulation is something where Musk may have to continue to defer to experts and inclusive processes.
Encouragingly, Musk has promised he will take on spam bots. This will aid free speech and his aim to authenticate all humans on Twitter will add to the platform’s credibility.
Musk reckons Twitter’s algorithms should be open source, so people can learn and suggest improvements. Different users may be able to rely on different algorithms. This will sound revolutionary to some — and will spark worry in others who may cite issues involving the lay user’s limitations about choices of algorithms, issues around intellectual property protection, implications for the revenue stream, etc. The issue nonetheless is compelling. Consider another position Musk has articulated: if Twitter promotes or demotes your tweet, you should be able to tell.
As opposed to bans, Musk reckons ‘time outs’ backed by transparency might work better. Everyone is allowed back in the room if they behave themselves — yes, even Donald Trump.
If Twitter aims to build more trust between governments and the people, Musk is saying that enhancing the public’s trust through transparency in Twitter itself is necessary.
While advocating free speech, Musk also said Twitter should obey laws of the countries it operates in. Is this a contradiction? Twitter’s value exists in being able to broadcast and amplify speech that challenges — sometimes violates — restrictive free speech laws in many countries where it operates. Following the laws of countries could mean voices of dissidents and human rights defenders are marginalised. This will be music to the ears of almost all governments. No doubt compliance is prudent business but when celebrating speech, Musk needs to be bold to protect the vulnerable.
None of this should obscure the fact that banks do not agree to lend billions for free speech. Twitter will undergo important changes. Musk might take it from an ad-based revenue model to a paid subscription leading to a ‘blue tick’. Then there is the ‘edit’ button he has mentioned — who doesn’t want that? He has spoken of end-to-end encryption on Twitter and enhancing it as a communication medium.
This takeover is a reminder of the power of corporations — indeed, even of one rich man — but there is something more at stake. Ultimately, if we care about free speech, we the people have to prioritise it in our politics and discourse. A corporation or those controlling it cannot always be held accountable like a government. But our collective and diverse voices can and do change how governments, and ultimately even corporations, act. Musk’s burning ambition has started off another conversation — we are all better off for it — but he need not be the one controlling the discourse. That is how politics works and this is an algorithm we figured out long before Twitter.
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2022