Elon Musk, the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist”, has made quite a few clap-trap statements (his promise of freedom from “Twitter jail,” for instance) just after taking control of the social media giant. In the past, he also likened Twitter to a digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity were debated. The claims were certainly ironic considering that Musk had no qualms over the years about bullying his critics on Twitter. However, it didn’t take much time for reality to catch up. Just hours after Musk declared victory by tweeting “The bird is freed,” European Commissioner Thierry Breton shot back, “In Europe, the bird flies by our rules.” Musk’s Twitter, like all social media companies, will have to be diligent about removing illegal content regardless of the country it was posted from, or face fines of up to 6% of their global turnover. If Twitter repeatedly breaks the rules, it runs the risk of being barred from EU.
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In India also, the government reminded Musk on the rule of law. Over the past two years, India has asked Twitter to act on content such as accounts supportive of Khalistan, posts alleged to have spread misinformation about protests by farmers, and tweets critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic. In response, Twitter has sued the government, seeking the quashing of as many as 39 blocking orders on the grounds that they are unconstitutional, and violate the principles of online speech and intermediary liability. It is a tricky situation for Twitter in a country, which is estimated to be its third-largest market. Twitter has over 25 million users in India and will remain one of the key markets for the company’s growth.
That explains why Musk, the shrewd businessman, has quickly softened his stand. Twitter has formed a content moderation council “with widely diverse viewpoints” and declared that no major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before the council convenes. It is a prudent move, as Musk faces a formidable challenge in balancing a promise to restore free speech while preventing the platform from descending into a “hellscape,” as he has vowed in an open letter to advertisers. Support from them is crucial as a decade-long boom in digital advertising that fuels social media has slowed down considerably, bringing share prices crashing down across Silicon Valley. Musk can’t reasonably expect to get any meaningful advertising revenue if Twitter does not promise them brand safety at a time when he has grand plans for a faster pace of product innovations and shift to new revenue streams.
Musk has reportedly been flooded with demands and requests by fake and banned account owners and world leaders. The point is that free speech is understood differently by people belonging to different political and social ideologies, and hence the issue is not so black-and-white. The potential changes in Twitter’s policies have already divided Twitter’s own users, some of whom are worried Musk will loosen regulations governing hate speech and misinformation, and some of whom feel the previous management curtailed free speech with overly rigorous rules. Musk has done well by setting up the moderation council as it allows him to buy time before taking a view on the safeguards that Twitter’s erstwhile management had built. They may not have been perfect but they certainly need careful evaluation before a view is taken either way.