Social networks: How far is freedom? Twitter case

Twitter was bought by Elon Musk, a compulsive entrepreneur who created Paypal (online payments), then Tesla (electric cars) and finally SpaceX (rockets), for an “indecent” amount which is 44 billion dollars. Indecent, not only because it is abnormally high in terms of the company’s results, but also because this acquisition shows the almost unlimited means of some people in the world.

The main problem posed by this redemption is, in a higher and not new way, the relation to freedom, to truth, to intimacy. Twitter now has 340 Million users, which is only a small fraction of the number of Meta users (Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp). But, on the one hand, Meta like Youtube (Google) has stricter moderation rules without, at the moment, being perfect and, on the other hand, these other social networks are less associated with traditional media. We have noticed that Twitter has become an important means of communication and influence for politicians and personalities. Journalists get their sources out there without moderation…and often without verification.

The most notable new thing is Elon Musk’s stated desire to greatly limit moderation, whether it concerns hateful, offensive content, or “fake news”. For him, there is no fake news. The truth does not exist. If someone says the earth is flat, that’s their right. There will be enough people to explain and try to prove otherwise. Twitter becomes a libertarian tool according to the wishes of its new owner.

Revenues that come mainly from advertising, we can also imagine that the power will be given to advertisers or “partners”. The fight has begun with Apple threatening to pull both its advertising on Twitter, and the Twitter application from the Appstore, making Twitter unusable on iPhones, and likely forcing the company into bankruptcy. We can also imagine that the one who will really have power is Elon Musk himself, who, according to his beliefs, will ban or change the visibility of such and such a transmitter, or such and such a content. He also began by withdrawing some journalists who decided to publish his travels and therefore his place of residence.

Is it an asset or a handicap for democracy? If we refer to the Arab Spring, many commentators praise the positive role played by social networks in this desire for people’s freedom. If we refer to the attack on the Capitol, we cannot maintain that these networks are always in the service of democracy. We can also think that this capacity for expression comes to strengthen the dislike of the ballot boxes, the citizen thinks himself more active with a Tweet read by thousands of people, than with one that does not known ballot. We can also think that Twitter is becoming a democratic tool when we see that Elon Musk tested his legitimacy there and got in a few days 17 Million votes… asking him to leave!

Is it an asset or a handicap for human development? Twitter is clearly a channel for accessing information and knowledge, specific to man and his development. It is also a channel for disseminating news, good or bad, true or false, with associated manipulation capabilities through popular algorithms. It is a communication tool, which is also human specific. But why is this communication, which is often, tinged with hatred, insults, contempt, violence.

These questions have been raised since the birth of the written press, radio or television. At each stage, reading, listening, viewing, a level is crossed. In interactivity a new step is taking place. We are a long way from the “mail from readers” that allowed some subscribers to express themselves in the daily or weekly. We already know that this is often the first section that readers look at. Now the president tweets, the pope tweets, the pundits tweet, Mr. or Mrs. everyone tweets too. Two ethical issues arise:

  • on the one hand a total relativity, all are equal, to each in his own truth, even
  • on the other is an inability to regulate the outpouring of violence

States are trying to provide answers, such as the European Union and its “Digital Service Act”, but will they not always fall behind in front of a technology whose speed of development is not so political? The providers themselves seem to be building the tools, but isn’t that what gives them more power?

Do we have any other choice other than education which will take a generation to have effects. What happens in the meantime?

Twitter itself does not create the hatred and invective that pours into it, more importantly it gives them a new echo and playground. In the desire to fix and moderate, we can correct a symptom, but the heart of the matter will remain unchanged. Can we judge the messenger without trying to understand the message?

Thierry Sergeant

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