Buying free speech: On Elon Musk’s Twitter buy

Musk should not do away with the safeguards Twitter has built against hate speech

Updated - April 27, 2022 10:14 am IST

Published - April 27, 2022 12:12 am IST

After buying Twitter for $44 billion, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk made a pitch for free speech. “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter,” he tweeted, “because that is what free speech means”. He also likened Twitter to “a digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”. The world’s richest man talking about free speech and humanity’s future after buying one of the most influential social media platforms seems to be the most politically correct thing to do. But it is certainly ironic considering that the billionaire buyer had no qualms over the years about using the social media platform to aggressively promote his business interests as well as block and, some may say even bully, critics. But in saying what he has said, Mr. Musk has put the spotlight on what has been a sensitive issue for Twitter in recent years — its inability to convincingly come across as a platform where healthy conversations can take place. Often, those indulging in hate speech and threatening violence have found full play on the platform until authorities put in a request for withholding of the offensive tweets. Whatever it did toward that goal — from creating policies around abuse and disinformation to unleashing technology for spotting problematic content early — did little to change the perception. One need not even consider its move to permanently ban the then U.S. President Donald Trump to make the point that it, at times, has come across as an interested player rather than a disinterested platform — its inconsistencies in labelling content as problematic would alone suffice.

What Mr. Musk does next toward promoting free speech on the platform would be keenly watched. The first challenge to this is the fact that free speech is understood differently by people belonging to different political ideologies. But, Mr. Musk is all for a light touch in moderating content. CNN quoted him as saying in a recent TED conference that, “If in doubt, let the speech exist.” He added, “If it’s a gray area, I would say, let the tweet exist. But obviously in the case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you would not necessarily want to promote the tweet.” He is also in favour of increasing trust by making the algorithms open source and using technology to spot spam bots. Would that improve the situation? Perhaps. Would he do away with the safeguards Twitter has built over time? One hopes not. But Mr. Musk may realise in the journey that the issue of free speech is not so black-and-white from the vantage point of a platform owner. For, he is no longer just only a Twitter user with over 80 million followers.

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