April 27, 2022 – Tesla CEO and world’s richest man Elon Musk is planning to take Twitter private after he finalised a $44 billion deal to buy the company this week. But Musk’s promise to promote free speech has raised concerns from analysts and experts regarding the future of expression on the platform after its privatisation.
“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,” Musk said in a statement he posted on April 26, 2022.
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— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
He went on to add, “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
In his latest tweet, Musk has explained what he means by “free speech”.
“By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law,” he said. “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask the government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”
By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.
I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.
If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.
Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022
The experts, however, are of the opinion that Musk’s promise to promote free speech and let people say whatever they want will, at the same time, put the onus on them to fight misinformation and bullying, according to a report published by AFP. They also believe that after privatisation, the platform is likely to prioritise profits over healthy online conversations.
Kyla Garrett Wagner, assistant professor of communications law at Syracuse University, does not think that Twitter in Musk’s hands is a free speech rights victory.
“What we have done is put even more power into fewer hands,” Wagner tells AFP. “If Elon Musk decided tomorrow that he wants to shut down Twitter for a week, he can do that.”
The billionaire entrepreneur will have the power to decide what can and cannot be posted on Twitter, she adds.
Wagner also warns that Musk will face tough judgement in the court of public opinion, with users apt to turn away from the platform if it becomes hostile and flooded with misinformation.
“Musk says he is going to turn Twitter into a social media platform with no moderation; there have been several of those and they don’t work,” says analyst Rob Enderle. “The trolls take over, they get too hostile and drive people away from the platform.”
Media Matters for America Chief Angelo Carusone says, “Accountability now rests with Twitter’s top advertisers, who need to make it clear that if Twitter becomes a free-for-all of hate, extremism and disinformation, they will walk.”
According to Carusone, Google and Apple need to reiterate that Twitter will not receive special treatment and that “a violation of their terms of service will result in the platform being removed from the app stores.”
“It’s a misleading comfort to think everything will be okay if we know how it is working,” remarks Wagner.