With Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter, there’s more at stake than freedom of speech

While some critics worry that private Twitter may have ramifications for free speech that are disguised as fake news and toxic behavior, others warn of potentially even greater implications for democracy.

The board of the social media company said this week that it will allow Tesla TSLA,
+ 0.58%
Elon Musk, CEO and Twitter aficionado, bought the platform for $ 44 billion. The hashtags #DeleteTwitter and #RIPTwitter immediately became a trend as word quickly spread (on Twitter, of course) that the richest man in the world had lined up funding to take over the business.

Musk has used Twitter liberally and controversially over the years. He was sued in defamation in a UK court in 2018 for calling a British cave explorer a “fart”. In his defense, Musk said he didn’t mean it literally, he just meant he was found by a “creepy old man.” In 2019, the UK court ruled that Musk did not defame the explorer.

In another long-running saga played on TWTR Twitter,
Musk is still stuck in a disagreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over the market movement statements he made in 2018 when he publicly reflected in tweets that he was “thinking” of taking Tesla in private. On Monday, he tweeted to the San Francisco SEC office “They were shameless puppets from Wall St’s short-selling sharks.”

Twitter users are likely to have their own opinions on whether Musk’s comments on Tesla’s deprivation got too close or even violated SEC rules for public companies and whether the British outrage constituted an insult or something more serious. Either way, other observers are now facing even bigger issues: the implications of a Twitter owned by Musk on democracy.

(Twitter and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment on this report.)

For his part, Musk said he sees Twitter as a bustling and lively public square. “Freedom of expression is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the city’s digital hub where vital issues for the future of humanity are debated.” shared on the platform. He also advocated “making open source algorithms to increase trust, defeat spam bots, and authenticate all humans.”

Not everyone is comfortable with the public square or freedom of expression. Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor of communications at Syracuse University, said this argument is designed to help Musk with his most urgent agenda: getting shareholder approval for the sale. “It gives a lot more influence to governments, which depend on this platform for propaganda. Twitter has become a propaganda machine,” they said.

Research suggests that fake stories are spreading faster than real stories on Twitter, and that the platform can be used effectively to amplify conspiracy theories that advance political agendas. As Musk has shown with a case that took him to court in the UK, the social media platform has become a hotbed of online harassment and verbal abuse.

Twitter helped galvanize protests during the Arab Spring protests in 2010 and the Black Lives Matter grassroots movement in 2020, and more recently banned advertisements from climate change propagandists, and offers people a platform to debate the problems of the day. But it’s hard for Joe or Jane Soap to compete with Elon Musk, which has 86.6 million followers. (With 131.7 million followers, Barack Obama is No. 1).

Grygiel believes that the most powerful users (politicians, celebrities, and big business) have an extraordinary presence on the platform compared to those who don’t have the ornaments of fame or fortune, or an adoring Twitter fan base. “Musk works more like a sovereign,” they said. “He was more like Mark Zuckerberg.”

Owning a social media platform, as Zuckerberg has acknowledged from Facebook, has a huge influence on the global stage, and companies have struggled and failed to control the information that appears on their platforms, information that can influence elections .

“We’re not talking about how the statute works on social media,” Grygiel added. “All federal aspects of government also depend on Twitter. It’s not just about the person, it’s about the country, it’s about the head of state and the global geopolitical implications of Musk’s takeover of Twitter.” .

“We’re not talking about how the statute works on social media. All federal aspects of government also depend on Twitter. It’s not just about the person, it’s about the country.”

– Jennifer Grygiel, Associate Professor at Syracuse University

Amid lingering questions about the quality of speech on Twitter, the company does have it clear guidelines about what is considered acceptable and what is not. It prohibits threats of violence, terrorism / violent extremism, child sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, hateful behavior and the promotion of suicide / self-harm, among other behaviors. But as Amnesty International has reported, monitoring and eliminating some or all of the above (racism, misogyny, homophobia) is a separate challenge.

“Twitter moderation policies are certainly not perfect. None,” said Jeff Hancock., founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab. “They have worked hard to improve their online conversations and eliminate the really toxic ones. It is unclear what Musk will do in this regard. His own style of Twitter has been problematic. If anyone else tweeted the things they did, they would be fired. “

Twitter is committed to fighting fake news and elimination of fake accounts, but others see Musk as an even bigger potential thorn in the side of civilized discourse. Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren said of Musk’s offer on Twitter: “It’s dangerous because a billionaire decides how millions of people will have a chance to communicate with each other.”

The “freedom of speech” argument for Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is an oversimplification of Musk’s agenda and leaves many questions unanswered, said Donna Davis, an associate professor and director of the master’s program at Musk. University of Oregon Strategic Communication “What does it become? Does Twitter become part of the dark web because it is not completely filtered?

A culture of misinformation

Like Warren, Davis is concerned that one person has so much control over a platform with 217 million daily users. “It’s good, bad and ugly. We have already seen the ugliest thing: what has uncontrolled social content done to create a culture of misinformation and what has it done to fracture much of our culture. If left unchecked, it will only get worse, and [become] potentially dangerous ”.

User anonymity can help fuel a toxic culture and influence elections, he added. “I remember the days when if you wrote an opinion piece you had to sign your name on it because you owned it, and you had to deal with the consequences of that,” Davis said. “So more people could have a voice and share it. In this anonymity, they found security, but they also found power and used it in a very destructive way.”

Great technology has enormous power, said Aram Sinnreich, a professor of communications at the American University of Washington, DC. “American billionaires are indeed oligarchs and play a disproportionate role in politics and the public sphere,” . “All of this is catalyzed by the inequality of wealth and a multimillion-dollar class that cannot be regulated, taxed and held accountable.”

As the author of a recent science fiction novel and an avid fan of the genre, Sinnreich paints a grim, and perhaps even fatalistic, view of social media as “digital feuds controlled by billionaires.” He added: “This is essentially a giant referendum on what the future of the democratic society of the United States is like, and right now the weather vane is not pointing in the right direction.”

Sinnreich said the geopolitical influence of social media platforms was foreshadowed in 2010 when the Supreme Court handed down its 5-4 ruling to Citizens United vs. in a wave of campaign spending.

“I remember the days when if you wrote an opinion piece you had to sign your name because you owned it, and you had to deal with the consequences of that.”

– Donna Davis, an associate professor at the University of Oregon

Would active Twitter users even notice a difference under Musk’s ownership? Twitter could look very different in a few years and focus more on engaging with videos like TikTok and photos like Instagram, and at the same time transforming into a less supervised platform, according to Mark Beal, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University School of Communication and Information. and author of “Gen Z Graduates to Adulthood. ”

Less follow-up on tweets would likely lead to the site losing its credibility as a source of hard news, he said. “What could Twitter be?” Beal wondered. “Where could I go? What shape or form could it take? Will it compete with Facebook? Platforms like Twitter control content and potentially remove content. How does this change with a new manager who is better suited to open it?

Andrew DeVigal, director of the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon, has little hope that Twitter will become something that unites people. DeVigal said he gets nervous whenever any billionaire, from Elon Musk to Amazon AMZN,
Founder Jeff Bezos – plays an important role in determining anything, from how people communicate as a society in public forums like Twitter to how we buy goods on the Internet.

But he also said that power can come, and it can go. “There were days when there was no Twitter, and there was no Facebook FB,
He said, “Perhaps Instagram has maintained its relevance and use. But people are leaving one platform for another. Mira TikTok. Twitter has a huge influence, but it’s just a platform. People leave Netflix NFLX,
who knew he was coming? “

DeVigal recognizes the ideals of the dream and the aspiration of Twitter as a public square, as Musk argues. But he also agreed with Grygiel that some Twitter users are more alike than others in the digital space. “The most extreme often become the strongest because they get the most amplification, unlike those who lead with curiosity, balance and complexity of who we are as a society.”

These extremes, emotional and political, left and right, absorb the air, he said. “We, as a society, must share values ​​about the world we want to live in. Can we take advantage of this platform to find this civility and an honest curiosity in how we define facts and truth? If we do not operate in the reality of what we define as facts, there is no real basis on which to build a solid democracy. “

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