Twitterdom with a new king should worry us all

The role of social media for free expression is crucial in general, but especially important in countries where democracy is weakening.

Kamal Ahmed

Kamal Ahmed

The Daily Star


Illustration: Sushmita S Preetha

April 28, 2022

DHAKA – Elon Musk, a self-proclaimed free-speech absolutist and the world’s richest man, is the new king of Twitterdom. His takeover of Twitter may have provided the company a much-needed new direction of exploring uncharted adventures, as its founder Jack Dorsey says, “Solving for the problem of it being a company, however, Elon is the singular solution I trust.” The reason for using “however” by Dorsey in his tweet was in his words, “In principle, I don’t believe anyone should own or run Twitter. It wants to be a public good at a protocol level, not a company.” The way Musk, Twitter’s top troll, bullied the management of the company and bought it indicates that the platform may not remain a space for public good as it becomes a private property. Here’s a reminder about the acquisition of Twitter that he said, “this is not about economics, this is about power and influence.”

With 86.1 million followers, Elon Musk is the top Twitterati, but he has also courted controversy by taunting others on the Twittersphere. Musk has been described as a troll by none other than a former insider of the company, Twitter’s former head of news and currently the executive director of the Aspen Institute, Vivian Schiller. And there’s no dearth of examples. The New York Times reported that before his pivotal meeting with the Twitter’s board, Mr Musk tweeted in which he made fun of Bill Gates for taking a short position on Tesla. His tweeting habit does not give much confidence in his post-takeover tweet that he hopes his “worst critics remain on Twitter.”

The way the Tesla boss bought Twitter was also quite unconventional. He first wanted to know how much it would cost for buying by firing a tweet. Then he acquired more than nine percent of the shares, but discounted speculations of taking a seat on the board or interfering in running the business. But within days, he made a new enticing offer through a tweet to buy the whole company, and the deal was done at an unprecedented speed. His critics, therefore, have every reason to argue that Musk is desperate to gain more power, and promotion of free speech is a mere facade.

Why does the Twitter takeover by Elon Musk matter for anyone in Bangladesh, when it has a tiny audience of about 750,000, whereas Facebook has a whopping 44.5 million users? Social media platforms worldwide have been increasingly coming under scrutiny—mainly owing to its power of democratisation, but also for its toxicity. The role of social media for free expression is crucial in general, but especially important in countries where democracy is weakening or rulers are becoming autocrats. Therefore, prospects of more freedom of expression or free speech should be a very welcoming development. If any one of the existing social media platforms becomes more democratic, then there’s bound to be some positive impact on the rest. And in terms of social influence, Twitter with more than 300 million users enjoys a certain edge over Facebook or Instagram, despite those having far larger subscriber numbers. It’s due to the nature of the content, which is more news-oriented than personal and family affairs and networking. But the scary prospect is its potential toxicity, where individuals could face an endless torrent of abuse based on their skin colour, faith, gender, political ideology, and so on.

Vivian Schiller told BBC’s Radio 4 on Monday that about two weeks ago, when asked how he would make the platform more free speech-friendly, Mr Musk could not give a clear answer. Musk’s declaration, so far, is that he wants to see more “free speech” and less moderation. Many right-wing forces, like Trumpian Republicans in the US, who have long been complaining that Twitter’s moderation policies favour the freedom of speech of left-leaning viewpoints, rejoiced. According to Ms Schiller, this moderation is an art without which this public space is ungovernable. She also admitted that the Twitter management had not always had it right.

The most glaring example in the US of Twitter being used to incite violence was the January 6 insurrection at Capitol Hill by Trump supporters, fuelled by conspiracy theories that led to the permanent ban of the outgoing president on Twitter. In India, presumably the largest democracy in the world, we have seen how religious hate preaching on Twitter has been spreading communal division and violence. It, therefore, makes Elon Musk’s proposition of unbound free speech a serious cause for concern as it could amplify disinformation too.

There is no doubt that we all love freedom of expression and hate censorship, but not without restraints on the spread of hate and violence. Some of his memorable tweets include those against Covid lockdown bolstering conspiracy theorists, extending support to Canadian truckers’ disruptive sit-in protest, and violating Securities and Exchange Commission directives that led to wiping out of USD 14 billion in a minute from the share market. Repeating such erratic behaviour now will no longer make him accountable to anyone, other than expensive private legal actions.

One thing that encourages most of us is that Elon Musk has promised to bring transparency in Twitter’s algorithm, making the metrics of populism and support visible, and cracking down on bots. If it happens, then ghost followers of many popular but controversial figures will disappear. In India, Twitter’s third top market, political observers have begun speculating that the IT cells of major political parties will be folding as they are accused of maintaining bots and troll armies. However, Musk could have brought in such transparency without taking it out from the public control, as he had the opportunity to take up a seat on the company board with the single largest holding of its shares.

Many observers believe that the USD 44 billion takeover will push politicians and regulators around the world to bring in new and stringent rules on social networks and force them to take more responsibility for the content they carry, issuing steep fines for non-compliance on material that incites violence, is abusive or classifies as hate speech, among other things. In the US Congress, before Twitter’s takeover, it was the Republicans who were pushing for taking on Big Tech companies, and now Democrats have started gearing up for a fight.

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