“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,” Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, said in his first reaction after sealing the deal to take over one of the world’s most influential social media companies.
Musk, in quotes released by Twitter’s communications team, went on to say that he wants to “make Twitter better than ever” by bringing in new features, and plans to “make the algorithms open source to increase trust”, defeat “the spam bots”, and authenticate “all humans”.
Inevitably, Musk’s mission with Twitter could turn out bigger than can be summarised in what he said on Monday. But his initial remarks carry important indicators for what the future could hold for Twitter, and none is more important than his focus on free speech.
Twitter, it must be remembered, was the first social media company to permanently ban then United States (US) President Donald Trump, who had egged on his supporters before the infamous insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6 last year. While others — Facebook, YouTube, and the likes — followed suit, that Twitter did it first is crucial.
Musk, at the time, said tech companies cannot act “as the de facto arbiter of truth”. In appearances since, he has gone on to describe himself as a “free speech absolutist”, especially when prodded to block Russian news content on his Starlink satellite internet service in the days after Moscow invaded Ukraine and launched a propaganda blitzkrieg.
The position has been consistent with the billionaire’s libertarian outlook for the internet, in which he was one of the earliest protagonists, even though his critics point out that his conduct has often contradicted what he said. He has, in the past, called a British national in Thailand “a pedo guy” for criticising him, discredited media reporting critical of him and his companies as motivated, and attempted to stop a Twitter account from posting his flight paths from open-source data.
Of course, it was the freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution — the law that applies to Twitter — that protected Musk’s right to make those comments, even if he at times pushed the boundaries of fiduciary propriety.
But the libertarian idea of speech online today has weaknesses: not all speech is equal, and not all communities suffer equally when free speech is abused.
Take, for instance, the example of Trump, who often mocked the idea of wearing masks during his time in office. If Trump managed to motivate even 25% of Americans who never wore a mask, it likely led to around 4,200 additional deaths till September 2020, a projection by a CDC epidemiologist estimated.
On the other hand, when Trump himself caught the virus, he received an experimental antibody cocktail that would cost close to $100,000 for an average American without insurance — a price that will likely be impossible in a country where the annual median household income is $67,000.
There are examples within Musk’s sphere itself. The billionaire entrepreneur has a legion of followers who often see Musk’s responses to his critics as a dog whistle: journalists, especially women, have reported instances where they have been harassed over social media, flooded with hate and abuse.
Then there is the question of the world beyond the United States of America.
A libertarian Twitter will immediately fly in the face of the Digital Services Act, which the European parliament sealed a consensus on just last week. The future law, expected to come into force between one and two years from now, makes it mandatory for social media companies to remove illegal content under European law (with much narrower immunity for speech than American law) or face fines up to 6% of their annual global turnover.
Legal compliance requirement is far from the sole reason for content moderation to be inevitable — there is a moral motive as well, especially in the Global South. In countries lacking robust institutions and in authoritarian regimes, abuse of free speech will inevitably hit communities outside of the social, economic and political elite harder.
Bad actors can be as sophisticated as nation-States and as solitary as American far-Right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones — two prominent men banned permanently from Twitter (and several other platforms). Yiannopoulos routinely rallied racist and sexist troll armies, and Jones, who runs a far-right conspiracy theory website Infowars, claimed incidents like the Sandy Hook school massacre in the US and the 9/11 attacks were “false flag operations”.
These challenges are not new — Yiannopoulos was banned in 2016, a year that was a tipping point for platform trust and safety. This was the year when disinformation campaigns, abusing online speech, undermined American elections and the Brexit referendum.
Those are manifestations of how far the internet of today has metamorphosed from the internet envisioned in the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Penned by cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow in 1996, it envisioned the internet as a “world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity” — but today, the harms from doing so can be grave.
Barlow did not foresee that problems offline will translate into problems online. Musk, of course, is aware of these challenges. The successes of the projects that today give him his superstar status — Tesla, SpaceX, Hyperloop, Starlink, stem not from ideological absolutism but pragmatism. In almost all of these, unlike true libertarianism, Musk benefited from government help, tax breaks or subsidy.
Against this backdrop, it is unlikely that what Musk does with Twitter will be wholly irrational. In a recent Ted talk, for instance, there was a hint of more nuance to his free speech plans for Twitter: “Twitter has become kind of the de-facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
How he works on addressing perceptions about free speech on Twitter will be crucial because it is one thing to engineer for matter and material, it is completely another to build for thought.
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The views expressed are personal