In wanting to “liberate” expression on Twitter, Elon Musk vainly pursues an outdated utopia

After more than six months of adventures that left doubts about the outcome of this process until the last moment, Elon Musk took control of Twitter on October 27. Are the jolts and reversals that characterized the acquisition phase of the platform describes what the daily life of the company will be like from now on?

As he always repeats, the new owner of the place wants to “return” freedom of expression to the platform: he repeated it as soon as he was in control, in a tweet declaring that “The bird is free”.

However, he had already realized that his room for maneuver in this area was, indeed, very limited.

Social network and moderation are inseparable

If it were implemented as desired by the man who, on D-Day, described himself as “Chief Twit” on his Twitter profile, this non-interventionist policy would in fact not be the starting point for the platform: it would rather be a return to basics, back to a time when the blue bird company, in the naivety and idealism of its youthful years, described itself as ” the pro-free speech wing, within the free speech party “.

However, if Twitter gradually moves away from this initial posture, it is precisely because it is unbearable.

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In his work Guardians of the Internet, which is a reference in the field, the researcher Tarleton Gillespie does not hesitate to present moderation as consubstantial (“essential, constitutional, definitional”) in digital platforms: therefore misunderstanding their very nature the claim to reduce this activity to its simplest form. Member of the Trust and Safety Council (Trust and Security Council) of Twitter, juror Danielle Citron said nothing else when she asked Elon Musk on this topic, right on the platform.

Experience confirms the yawning gap between the promises of expression without safeguards presented by some platforms in their childhood and the practices that fall into them. Created in recent years, the Parler, Gettr and Truth Social platforms were immediately presented as a haven for freedom of expression. In fact, they quickly converted to intensive filtering of content published by their users, for example regarding posts denouncing the storming of the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters on January 6, 2021. In addition, these withdrawal decisions are often made on the basis of non-transparent criteria, as their conditions of use are sometimes very short or limited to generic formulations at this point.

Even the richest people in the world are subject to economic constraints

On the very day of the acquisition, the new boss wanted to assure advertisers that the platform would not become “a hell where everyone is allowed”, in fact recognizing the need for moderation.

In fact, it cannot ignore the economic necessity of maintaining the attractiveness of this digital environment for the average user, and therefore for the companies that wish to deploy their advertising efforts there. All but one specification for a company that, by now, derives 90% of its revenue from advertising.

Aware of the power of this method of pressure, more than fifty NGOs recently published an open letter addressed to the twenty companies that invest the most in advertising on Twitter, urging them to demand that “the basic practices of -moderate is already valid on the platform” . Several companies have already announced that they will suspend their social network marketing expenditures. Although Musk sought reassurance that existing rules and practices remain in place For now still in place, he also persisted temporary nature of this situation.

Other economic reasons are likely to significantly reduce the multi-billionaire’s room for maneuver. Most of his wealth consists of Tesla shares, which have lost more than a third of their value since he announced his intention to acquire the social network. Furthermore, given this context and the volume involved, Musk cannot convert these assets into cash without exacerbating this downward trend. So it had to borrow $13 billion from banks, putting it under pressure to generate a return on investment, even though the business was only twice as profitable in the past decade. .

This arrangement puts Musk at odds with his own statements last April, when he said that Twitter’s future acquisition was “absolutely not” an economic question. The apparent haste in which almost half of the employees were fired, as well as the sudden sale of blue brands of verified accounts, seem to contradict the fact that the new CEO is feeling the pressure of profitability, which hardly matched by a marked decline in content moderation, which would lead to a shrinking of its user base and advertising revenue.

Twitter takeover complete, Elon Musk fires Euronews executives, October 28, 2022.

Another part of its financing plan is based, in the amount of 7 billion dollars, on contributions from about twenty partner investors, who also have expectations in terms of profitability. Some of that funding depends on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are unlikely to share Musk’s views on free speech.

Finally, Musk’s many industrial interests, sources of income as well as personal prestige, can be used by various governments as a great means of pressure so that the head of the company makes decisions in the desired direction, including about the contents available on what now constitutes “his” platform. Will Musk not be able to meet the demands from Beijing when China is the second market for Tesla, which just opened a giant factory in Shanghai? Even though Twitter is not authorized in China, the Xi Jinping government may try to require the removal of certain content deemed inappropriate, as long as it is available on the platform in the rest of the world.

Content moderation: an increasingly regulated… and politicized topic

Ironically, the process of Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and the adoption of the “Digital Services Act” (DSA), the European law that will regulate the digital sector in an unprecedented way, has twice passed key stages of a synchronized way: in April, the announcement of the project to buy the platform of the billionaire coincided, for two days, with the conclusion of a political agreement between the institutions of the Community on this text.

Read more: The Digital Services Act, a brake on Elon Musk’s Twitter ambitions in Europe?

Six months later, the takeover became effective with the publication of the legislative text in the Official Journal. Although the result of chance, this opportunity has the merit of emphasizing that limiting Twitter moderation to a strict minimum is no longer an option in the European context. The European Commissioner in charge of the internal market, Thierry Breton, also wants to remind Elon Musk of this, revolving around the metaphor he started earlier.

In the United States, content moderation is not subject to federal regulation, except in special cases related to copyright and child pornography. However, the famous “Section 230” of the Communication Decency Act, which guarantees platforms a very wide margin of maneuver in this area, is at the center of legislative debates and may be changed in the medium term to a stricter direction.

In the context of the US, Musk has been exposed to the effects caused by the high level of politicization of online moderation: the Democrats are promoting more intervention of content platforms, unlike the Republicans who are denouncing a form of ” censorship”. Consequently, the most popular decisions in this field are systematically interpreted from a partisan angle. Since Musk is now the sole owner of Twitter and fired the entire previous management team, these same decisions are seen as his as well.

Although he did not seek to be seen as a neutral actor – he does nothing now mystery of his conservative beliefs – the new captain has a lot to lose in this explosive combination of politicization and personalization.

To escape this uncomfortable status, he announced the future creation of a ” Content moderation advice “: if he remained so vague on this subject, no doubt he sought by this means to avoid finding himself in the midst of the controversies which would not fail to arise as soon as a decision was reached in this area, even in one direction or another.

In this case, this new body that is very strongly inspired by Meta’s “Oversight Board”, once created, will have to deliberate to confirm or cancel the choice made by Twitter in January 2020 of Donald Trump’s account will be indefinitely suspended.

In a similar vein, Musk met online on May 1eh November with civil rights organizations, and assured them that any decision about Trump’s possible return to the platform must be made after ” clear process “. He also indicated that the Council in the future will include members of these special NGOs against online hatred.

This approach of distancing itself from sensitive decisions, which is far from new in the world of social networks, shows that Musk is discovering the implications of his acquisition. These first steps, which seriously undermine the scope of his initial promises, foreshadow a management at Twitter that will be characterized by intractable tensions between Musk’s libertarian aspirations and the practical obstacles that the any social network platform is now exposed.

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