Everyone from free-speech advocates to President Biden and members of the Senate had an opinion on Twitter Inc.’s board agreeing to accept Elon Musk’s bid for the company. Not surprisingly, the comments seemed split based on political ideology Monday.
Musk’s laissez-faire views on content moderation and pointed criticism of alleged right-leaning censorship on Twitter
elicited a tidal wave of strong views on the direction of information and voices on social media.
“Creating a free-for-all with no content moderation will leave us with a platform where only the loudest can be heard, including powerful state actors or those who pay for influence,” said Nabiha Syed, CEO of news site The Markup, who warned the acquisition could drive away “droves” of members because of Musk’s push for less moderation on Twitter. “What about marginalized communities who are targeted for harassment. Who will be looking out for their speech interests?”
Brooke Erin Duffy, associate professor of communication at Cornell University and co-author of a new book, “Platforms & Cultural Production,” researches the intersection of media, culture and technology. She’s concerned “marginalized communities of users are especially vulnerable to the forms of hate and harassment that so often circulate in unregulated online spaces.”
Where Musk takes Twitter is anyone’s guess, but should the outspoken billionaire deregulate the microblogging platform in his quest as a “free-speech absolutist,” it could “thwart its current commitment to ensuring that all people can participate in the public conversation freely and safely,” Duffy told MarketWatch.
That, no doubt, has the attention of the Beltway, which has vowed a crackdown on anticompetitive business practices by Big Tech but engaged in a fiercely partisan debate over what constitutes free speech and information on digital platforms.
“The president has long been concerned about the power of large social media platforms, the power they have over our everyday lives, has long argued that tech platforms must be held accountable for the harms they cause,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing shortly after the announcement.
From the opposite end of the spectrum, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., praised the Twitter board’s decision to agree to Musk’s takeover offer. “Today is an encouraging day for freedom of speech. I am hopeful that Elon Musk will help rein in Big Tech’s history of censoring users that have a different viewpoint,” she tweeted.
That Musk, the world’s richest person and Tesla Inc.
CEO, would draw such conflicting responses is not surprising. He routinely issues bombastic comments, whether in jest or out of spite, to ruffle corporate feathers. But the dangers of unmoderated speech could quickly lead to a platform “overcome by spam and garbage,” cautions Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
“That kind of platform wouldn’t work for anyone, whatever their political views,” Jaffer said.
Then again, the free-speech debate may have simply been a “distraction” for Musk to acquire control of what he sees as a company that can dramatically increase in value, according to Aron Solomon, chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital, who predicted Musk’s takeover bid would be accepted by Twitter’s board.
“It would be very surprising if Elon Musk did anything, especially in the short term, to jeopardize the value of Twitter,” Solomon told MarketWatch.
The reaction on Twitter: Users are either celebrating ‘free speech’ or saying ‘RIP Twitter’Twitter agrees to be bought by Elon Musk for $44 billion
Solomon is convinced Musk will make plenty of changes soon to “evolve” Twitter, including a long overdue edit button as well as a premium version at perhaps $2 to $3 a month that would give users better placement on the platform’s algorithm and a more customized feed.
“In other words, a pay-to-play model,” Duffy said.
Indeed, if Musk decides to “loosen content moderation policies,” some brands might be reluctant to advertise on a platform containing risky content or disinformation and instead go to other platforms, says Mike Proulx, research director at Forrester.
A significant swath of Americans believe Musk will “cause Twitter to allow greater free speech on the platform” (40%) and “improve the quality of discussion on the platform” (40%), according to an Ipsos poll conducted April 4-5 of 1,000 Americans age 18 and over.