The explosive announcement of Elon Musk buying Twitter has made some very prominent headlines. The world’s richest man signed a deal in April to buy Twitter for $44 billion, a platform of choice for activists, journalists, politicians, and regular citizens to share expressions and beliefs, unleashing its extraordinary potential for freedom of speech worldwide. While the deal is on hold, the billionaire himself kept his ears out for hosannas, but the overall public expression of this deal has been critical. The most common discussion of worry is that we are at the “billionaire peak” where perhaps everything is at the mercy of being controlled by those who own the most money in the world. It not only reflects a very rich set of power dynamics and decision making, but also a disturbing momentum for democracy and rights itself.
Billionaires and the race to control media
It is true that around the world, the most influential mediums of conversation have been controlled by the billionaires for ages now, and recent events reveal how most of the press is owned by a few, cherry-picked, wealthy people in the world.
In the early 2000s, especially with the rise of Facebook and Google, beneficiaries lost their income, and major news outlets were out of work and discouraged. To save the falling sky, wealthy individuals started acquiring these outlets, raising questions about their independence. For instance, Patrick Soon-Shiong, a Chinese billionaire, took over The Los Angeles Times in 2018, John Henry, a billionaire, and an American businessman, bought The Boston Globe in 2013, Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people in the world bought The Washington Post in 2013, and Laurene Powell Jobs, the former spouse of Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs, bought The Atlantic in 2017.
However, with the popularity of digital platforms, mainstream media continues to lose an audience that has increasingly been shifting to the internet for its primary news consumption. This gave rise to more individuals accumulating wealth and controlling the mediums of choice, like Mark Zuckerberg who is the founder and owner of Facebook.
The influence of Facebook is not unknown on its users’ consumption of the platform and the way information and communication are accessed through it. The monopoly of this platform cannot be contested, partly because of its early entry into the industry, and mostly because it actively controls who gets to enter the market.
Given its extensive power over speech, Facebook is accused of influencing the news that users are exposed to and facilitating the spread of disinformation, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, it was also found to have been deleting photos and videos in support of Palestine and those against Israeli apartheid last year.
The control of those with monetary power over platforms that serve as an avenue for free speech also impacts the rights, and particularly the right to free speech, of users of these platforms. One individual decides on what is allowed in these digital spaces, to what extent, and how. The centralisation of power creates a controlling, and rather curtailing, environment for individuals’ fundamental rights.
It is important to acknowledge that social media companies like Facebook and Twitter generate their revenue through targeted advertising, but despite the many problems with their business models rooted in violation of users’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression, they continue to be platforms of choice.
Owing to this influence of the digital public spaces, the news of Twitter’s takeover by Elon Musk raises a lot of questions for those who prefer the microblogging website for their political discourse. Concerns regarding their free speech have been raised, and many posit that the buyout will lead to the introduction of policies detrimental to their rights on the platform.
The control of billionaires like Musk over platforms like Twitter, which enable freedom of the press and speech in countries around the world, raises concerns over the independence of the platforms from the ideas and beliefs of one individual who owns them. It is also vital to think about the diplomatic and political ties that these so-called platform owners have with authoritarian governments.
Pakistan, Twitter Buyout, and Free Speech
In Pakistan, the media is seen as a crucial factor in forming public and political discourse which has increasingly started to depend on Twitter for breaking the latest news. Even though there are only 3.4 million Twitter users in Pakistan, the platform is regarded as the key place where political and government leaders turn to connect with their audience. Whereas, citizens in the country find it to be the ideal place to connect with the lawmakers. This is also the platform where most of the political and rights-based discourse starts, hence the media’s reliance to seek news from it. The government has repeatedly attempted to regulate Twitter by introducing legislation that would potentially make it mandatory for the social media platform to agree to the demands of the authorities, including the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules notified in October 2021 under section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016. It gives the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) the power to remove online content as it deems fit. It has also sent requests for account removal and access to account information to Twitter every quarter, as revealed by the Twitter Transparency Reports, however, the company’s compliance rate with these requests has been considerably low.
Twitter is one of the platforms that the government has been aiming to form diplomatic relationships with. Whereas Facebook is more approachable in this sense, Twitter has made no move to establish these ties with the Pakistani authorities. On one hand, this has preserved the identities and rights to free expression of many human rights activists and journalists on the platform; on the other hand, it has given abusers carte blanche to continue their detrimental activities. The platform started out as a great place to share content and comments in short tweets but quickly turned into a politically polarised pool of hate, vandalism, and organised attacks.
In situations like these, when crimes must be curtailed through constructive policymaking and public-private partnership, one platform holds considerable power over a country’s free expression, and the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk does not bode well with rights activists given its potential impact.
Twitter has always denied the allegations of biasness and claimed to have rigorous, carefully curated and implemented content moderation policies, regardless of political problems or country of origin – but that has not been the case for Pakistan and many other countries in the Global South. For example, it suspended over 200 accounts from Pakistan for posting about and in favour of Kashmir during India’s illegal takeover of the region in 2019. Several users from Pakistan reported that their accounts were suspended after posting tweets about Kashmir. With Musk’s takeover, his own politics will play a significant role in shaping the policies of the platform for the sole purpose of generating revenue. This is also in light of his recent tweet regarding free speech that stated, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
Amel Ghani, a journalist from Lahore says, “I think the concern is largely about Musk’s own beliefs and if he might impose [policies] as a way of making a profit. But the argument can always be made about how free of a space Twitter is or any other platform for that matter currently?”
She adds, “If we take the examples of the Kashmir issue or Palestine, anecdotal evidence does suggest that Twitter shadowbanned people where the posts talking about the issue didn’t have the same reach as when it talked about other issues.” Amel recalls after Article 370 was revoked by the Indian government, stripping Indian occupied Kashmir of its special status, Twitter shut down a number of pro-Kashmir accounts, and according to a CPJ estimate, Twitter has removed 1 million tweets since 2017 relating to Kashmir. She says, “Twitter also at the moment regularly takes down accounts and tweets at the request of various governments around the world. This isn’t outrightly a bad policy but again there isn’t enough transparency and consistency.”
The centralisation of power after Musk’s acquisition of Twitter will give governments like Pakistan a step forward to regulate content through the platform’s sole owner instead of a panel of decision-makers and transparent policy implementation.
Salwa Rana, a lawyer with extensive experience working on freedom of expression online, says, “On one side there’s the entire population of Twitter and on the other side, you have this billionaire who is so powerful. This imbalance of power can create a lack of accountability about what he does. He also really doesn’t understand how free speech operates. So I think he can very easily be swayed in any direction that the governments might want him to.”
The other sides
Musk has a reputation for disregarding governments’ regulatory demands, as evident by his tweet in response to a question regarding Starlink’s regulatory responsibilities, where he wrote that the regulators “can shake their fist at the sky.” So the matter is not only about whether the governments will try to strike a deal with the billionaire to favour their interests, but the other concern remains that the platform will move towards disregarding countries’ local laws and respecting the principles and subjectivity of free speech.
It is important to mention that free speech is a conditional right and comes with certain limitations defined in the laws of lands around the world. Musk said that with this takeover, he will enable everyone to have free speech on the platform, but later tweeted that this will remain under the limits of the law.
Rana says, “It’s crucial to respect laws of the land when it comes to freedom of expression, but it is necessary to also consider that not all legislatures are designed to uphold this right. Many, especially in Pakistan, are drafted with a sole purpose to curtail freedom of expression.” She adds, “In such instances, spaces like Twitter play a very important role in upholding people’s rights while staying in the ambit of respecting others’ absolute human rights.” She adds that a person’s right to free expression “ends at their nose.”
According to her, “For a tech person, he’s not aware of how the law operates and how fundamental rights are protected. The issue with billionaires is that they play by their own rules. For instance, businessmen are quite close with politicians and Elon himself is politically confused because he has never shown his allegiance to either the democrats or the republicans, this makes him more dangerous which means that he can be swayed in any direction.”
In the end
Is Elon Musk’s $44 billion takeovers of Twitter a bizarre billion-dollar joke or a devastating act that threatens freedom of expression worldwide? Loaded with money, Musk’s habit of playing pranks against his rivals and devising pump-and-dump schemes as he did with cryptocurrency, is well-known. With Twitter in his control, it raises questions about the platform’s policies to respect users’ rights that would not fall victim to some ill-advised, unprepared steps.
In order to assume control, Musk needs to have a team of credible advisors with diverse experience in understanding the nuances of freedom of expression in countries in the Global South where the control over freedom of expression, its violation, and subsequent implications leave a drastic impact on citizens’ other fundamental rights. This is particularly important especially when a suffocating environment for free speech is developed through draconian policymaking and arbitrary powers to authorities to control the press and voices of critics. In instances like this, platforms like Twitter act as an alternative avenue to hear and be heard.
This story was originally published on May 23, 2022