How will Elon Musk’s purchase affect freedom of expression on Twitter?

Twitter’s board of directors has announced that it will accept the acquisition offer from Elon Musk, the richest man in the world. Is this surprising capitulation beneficial for users?

Musk is offering $54.20 per share, which represents $44 billion as the company’s total price: one of the highest prices ever paid for a business acquisition.

Morgan Stanley and other financial institutions will lend $25.5 billion to Musk, who will contribute about $20 billion of his own. More or less the amount of the bonus he expects to receive from his company Tesla for having met the objectives of the last quarter.

Musk has assured that his intentions as owner of Twitter are to “unleash its extraordinary potential to become the platform for freedom of expression around the world.” He specifies this in the letter he sent to the current president of the company.

This belief in the potential of a social network to become a model of unlimited freedom of expression is based on an idealistic approach to social networks that has existed for some time.

In reality, the fact that Twitter has a single owner, whose own tweets have been false, sexist, self-serving, and probably defamatory, poses a risk to the future of the platform.

Will there be a radical change?

Musk’s move may be perceived negatively because it gives him unprecedented power and influence over Twitter. He himself has already pointed out some changes that he would like to make to the platform, such as:

1.- Restructure the current management team, since they claim to have no confidence in them.

2.- Add an edit button to tweets.

3.- Limit the current moderation control over the content of tweets: use temporary suspensions instead of absolute bans.

4.- Explore a transition to a payment model like Spotify’s, in which users can pay to avoid the most intrusive ads.

Previously, just after becoming Twitter’s largest individual shareholder in early April, Musk had stated: “I don’t care about the economic part at all.”

Although it is likely that the bankers who are going to lend him the 25.5 billion dollars to make the purchase are concerned. Musk will feel that pressure if he doesn’t make Twitter profitable. Although he claims that his priority is freedom of expression, advertisers on the platform, for example, may not want to see their products advertised next to an angry extremist tweet.

In recent years, Twitter has implemented a range of measures for content governance and moderation. For example, in 2020 it expanded its definition of “harm” to guide its treatment of Covid-19 content that contradicted authoritative recommendations.

Twitter assures that all the changes made to date in its approach to content moderation “are in the service of the public conversation” and focus on misinformation and misleading information. It also states that it responds to experiences of abuse or incivility that users face.

But this implementation of content moderation measures can also be interpreted as an effort to maintain its reputation, after much negative publicity.

The idea of ​​the ‘public square’

In any case, and whatever the real reasons for these attempts to moderate content, Musk has publicly criticized these platform tools.

He has even gone so far as to label the platform “a de facto public square.” A naive statement, to say the least. Microsoft communications expert Tarleton Gillespie already warned: thinking that social networks can function as true open spaces is a fantasy, given that they must control content while claiming not to.

Gillespie even suggests that platforms would be obliged to moderate, to protect users from their dialectical enemies, and remove offensive, toxic or illegal content. It would be the only way to present your best face to new users, advertisers, partners and the general public. The difficult thing, he argues, is having the critical capacity necessary to know “exactly when, how and why to intervene.”

Platforms like Twitter cannot set themselves up as public squares, especially since only a small part of the public uses them.

Furthermore, public squares are regulated implicitly and explicitly through the behaviors that regulate our social interrelations in public, and are supported by the possibility of resorting to an authority to reestablish order if disorder arises. In the case of a private business like Twitter, the final decision falls to one person: Musk.

But even if Musk were to implement his particular ideal of a public square, it would possibly be a personal and free version of this concept.

Giving users more leeway in what they can say could create further polarization and further harden discourse on the platform. This in turn will probably discourage advertisers. Without a doubt, a problem in Twitter’s current economic model (90% of its income comes from advertising).

Freedom of expression: for everyone?

Twitter is much smaller than other social networks. However, research shows that it has a disproportionate influence since tweets are especially fast and viral, and are reproduced in traditional media.

The tweets that stand out for each user are the result of an algorithm that seeks to maximize exposure and clicks, and are not intended to enrich the user’s life with interesting or respectful points of view.

Musk has also suggested that he will open access to the algorithms used by Twitter. An improvement in transparency. But once Twitter is a private company, the degree of transparency it wants to maintain will depend solely on what it decides.

Ironically, Musk has accused Meta (formerly Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg of having too much control over public debate.

And yet, Musk himself has attempted in the past to suppress the views of those who have been critical of him.

There is little evidence on which to believe that he truly intends to create a free and inclusive space on Twitter, and even less to believe that the changes he makes are in the common interest.

This article has been published inThe conversation‘.


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