Twitter: takeover talk sparks hate speech fears
Elon Musk’s proposed Twitter takeover threatens to make the social media platform even less regulated than it already is. His mooted changes would encourage far-right voices and unleash yet more disinformation and hate speech, making reasoned political debate and representation of diverse viewpoints harder. The fact that a public forum can become privately owned and have its rules set by a billionaire calls into question how social media is governed. Musk’s move should be a wake-up call, alerting to the need for better regulation. But to prevent regulation being instrumentalised by states to abuse their power, rules must be developed in consultation with civil society.
The sum in question is astronomical, the kind of money that could achieve real social good: in April, PayPal billionaire Elon Musk agreed to pay US$44 billion to take Twitter into private ownership. The deal has yet to be finalised and has hit some bumps in the road. These have included a major fall in the value of shares in Musk’s car company Tesla and a current standoff over the number of fake and spam accounts, which could presage a pullout or attempt to negotiate a lower price.
There is, in short, currently much uncertainty. But if successful, the deal has potentially ominous implications, not least as the USA approaches crucial midterm elections this November. There are many things wrong with Twitter; none of them would be fixed by this move.
Freedom of hate speech
Although never designed to play such a role, Twitter has become, to use Musk’s description, a kind of global ‘digital town square’: an arena of conversation and contestation, a key space where, among other things, political argument takes place.
It’s also become a massive source of disinformation with far-reaching consequences, not least in the conduct of elections and when it came to saving lives in the COVID-19 pandemic. Under its current ownership, Twitter has faced constant accusations of not doing enough to combat the circulation of disinformation and hate speech. But under pressure, it took some hesitant steps, such as banning Donald Trump in the wake of the USA’s attempted insurrection on 6 January 2021.
Musk has criticised even these limited moves, positioning himself a champion of free speech. Naturally, the reality when his business interests are at stake seems somewhat different: it’s reported that workers at his Tesla and SpaceX companies must sign non-disclosure agreements and agree never to take legal action against their employer. He’s no stranger to threatening legal action in response to criticism, and in March a Tesla employee said he was fired after posting a YouTube video highlighting safety concerns with a self-driving car.
He may say he’s opposed to bots now, but Musk’s own profile and fortune has been boosted by them. Musk has also sparked Twitter pile-ons against critics, including Twitter’s chief legal officer Vijaya Gadde; his critical tweets led to an avalanche of hatred, some of it racist in nature, from his self-proclaimed libertarian followers.
He’s also said Twitter ‘has a strong left-wing bias’, sharing right-wing memes in support of this claim, including one that suggests the US political spectrum has recently shifted leftwards, an idea that hardly stands up to serious scrutiny. It seems clear what direction this is heading in.
Far-right voices have already thrived on Twitter while simultaneously claiming they’re being silenced or cancelled. Research shows that claims Twitter and other social media platforms disproportionately censor right-wing voices are false. Research in the USA further indicates that while more Republicans than Democrats are indeed suspended from Twitter, this is simply because Republican supporters spread far more misinformation. Last year Twitter admitted that far from being biased against conservative voices, its algorithms disproportionately amplify tweets from right-wing politicians and news sources.
The proposed takeover promises more of this and worse. Musk has already said he would end Trump’s Twitter ban, describing it as ‘morally wrong’. Trump is insisting he doesn’t need Twitter, but no one would be surprised if he reclaimed this crucial platform to spread his toxic discourse ahead of a likely presidential run in 2024.
The announcement of Musk’s planned takeover even prompted a surge in followers for prominent right-wing accounts and losses of followers for those on the left, indicating already what kind of people were enthused by the news: it seems many on the right who weren’t already on Twitter joined in anticipation, while some on the left closed their accounts.
The danger is that the freedom Twitter would promote under Musk is more freedom for the voices of hate. An unmoderated Twitter would be a space in which disinformation and hate speech dominate, where excluded groups and those who challenge political and economic power are attacked even more relentlessly than now. Voices for rights and diversity would be shut down, silenced by abuse, while extremist voices would flourish.
Moderation – clearly currently far from perfect – should be acknowledged as a tool that promotes free expression, as the only way of enabling reasoned debate and allowing diverse voices to be heard.
A public space or private toy?
Twitter derives its power from its multitude of users, for many of whom it has become a daily essential, a key means to communicate and engage with the wider world. But to the ultra-rich, whose wealth has only grown during a pandemic that placed many under great economic strain, it’s just another asset that can be traded.
The proposed deal would convert Twitter, a publicly traded company that at least is accountable to its shareholders, into a private concern, with Musk answerable to no one but himself. He’d be free to set the rules as he wishes, the private landlord of the public square.
Musk is by some account the world’s richest person, with an estimated net worth of US$221.5 billion. His only qualification to play the role of arbiter of free speech is his wealth. This should at least prompt reflection on how online space is governed, regardless of whether the takeover proceeds. If social media giants can’t be trusted to live up to the immense responsibility that comes with their great power, other options must be explored.
One way forward is for states to develop stronger regulation against disinformation and online hate speech. These problems are so consequential that it is right for governments to play a role. Companies – especially those privately owned by individuals – cannot be left alone to decide what can be said and who gets to speak.
But at the same time state regulation is fraught with challenges. Around the world, governments are clamping down on civic space and one of the key ways they are doing so is through laws and actions that limit online expression. Activists for democracy and human rights are being criminalised under cybercrime and terrorism laws and vilified by political leaders and professional troll armies. Nothing should be done that makes this situation worse. Only work in partnership with civil society can avert the dangers.
The need is for more democratic states to take the lead and develop regulation through extensive public consultation. There are some positive moves here. While there are efforts underway in the USA, the European Union (EU) has made the most progress. In April it agreed the Digital Services Act, promising new rules to make the major platforms – those with more than 45 million EU users, including Twitter – assess and manage the risks their services entail. This includes the risks of disseminating disinformation and hate speech. Social media companies will be required to carry out annual audits and open themselves up to civil society scrutiny, with hefty fines for non-compliance.
If properly enforced, the EU’s approach could make a difference. Civil society within the EU should mobilise to ensure the new law is applied – and civil society in the rest of the world should push for high standards on disinformation and hate speech as well. They shouldn’t trust Twitter to do it by itself, either under its current or potential future owners.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Civil society in the EU should push for the full implementation of new regulations under the Digital Services Act.
Civil society elsewhere should demand higher standards on disinformation and hate speech and hold governments accountable for misuses of regulations.
Twitter must commit to uphold high standards in controlling disinformation and hate speech, in consultation with states and civil society.
Cover photo by REUTERS/Brendan McDermid via Gallo Images