LONDON (Project Syndicate)—With Elon Musk ready to buy Twitter TWTR,
for $44 billion, commentators are scrambling to figure out what the “absolutism of freedom of expression» married by the richest person in the world will mean for the platform. But the principle could also create headaches for Musk himself.
With the European Union and the United Kingdom poised to enact laws to make social media safer and more responsible, Musk apparently picked a bad time to roll back content moderation on Twitter.
In fact, despite those responsible threats, Musk will be able to emasculate the platform’s content restrictions in the name of free speech if that’s what he wishes to do. But he can reconsider once he realizes that this freedom will soon mean greater responsibility.
Legal but objectionable
Today Twitter forbidden a range of legal but objectionable content, including posts expressing the hope that someone gets hurt, or that contain “excessively” violent imagery, and content that “disrupts people’s experience”. And, of course, Twitter has banned high profile controversial users like former President Donald Trump. Musk wants to change that, with Twitter only banning illegal content.
UK and EU policymakers won’t openly admit it, but their online safety laws will leave Musk free to roll back Twitter usage bans and relax its content rules so they only ban illegal content.
While drafting the legislation, some lawmakers lobbied to regulate platforms’ handling of so-called “lawful but awful” content. But, in the face of strong resistance from civil society, they generally acknowledged that censorship of legal content went too far.
For example, the EU’s Digital Services Act will require big platforms like Twitter to assess the risks, such as discrimination or undermining democracy, created by posting legal but objectionable content. But platforms would generally be free to decide how they want to mitigate those risks. Banning the content would not be the only option.
So the EU and the UK won’t be able to complain if Twitter allows a lot more objectionable content on its platform, as long as it has other mitigations in place. These could be more protective of free speech, for example by asking users to confirm whether they really want to post or retweet questionable content.
Commercial and non-legal constraints
But even if online safety laws can’t force Musk to abandon his plans, they will affect his business incentives. Musk reportedly bought Twitter not because he sees it as a money-making machine, but because he likes the service. But, having staked $21 billion of its own equity and pledged a third of its Tesla TSLA,
shares as collateral for its debt financing of the offer, it clearly does not provide a public good.
Reducing content moderation to the bare minimum is unlikely to help Musk turn around Twitter’s struggling business. Advertisers hate the public relations risk of having their ads displayed alongside objectionable content. If Twitter got too toxic, they could quit the platform altogether, putting the vast majority of its revenue at risk.
Musk could ditch the ad-driven business model and turn Twitter into a subscription service. But lax content moderation will also make this option more difficult. Many users will be put off by the perception that Musk is trying to further entrench Twitter in the culture wars that concern its most avid users. And few users, even libertarians, want to sift through a mass of misinformation, devious memes, cruel pilings, and shoddy content to find engaging material.
If Musk stops banning users and removing legal content, he will have to use other tools to keep Twitter usable. That means relying even more on algorithms to amplify high-quality content and make problematic material harder to find.
Unleash the algorithms
Musk recently hinted that he thinks allowing any legal content would reduce his responsibility and liability, Tweeter that “if people want less freedom of expression, they will ask the government to pass laws”. But governments are pushing accountability onto platforms. Their laws will require platforms to be more transparent, not only about what content they ban, but also about how their algorithms promote and demote content.
Regulators, researchers and the public will be able to look under the hood at how the big platforms operate and carefully consider whether they favor one side of a policy debate over another. Musk has even said he wants to make Twitter’s algorithms open source, which will intensify that scrutiny. If Musk thinks a commitment to free speech will make Twitter “politically neutraland that users will be unaware of how his algorithms influence public debate, he is seriously mistaken.
Advocating freedom of expression is easy. But, as current Twitter management well knows, the reality of operating a social media platform is more difficult. The EU and UK laws will give Musk a free hand to loosen content moderation on the platform, but they will also create much more public scrutiny of his strategic and operational decisions.
He can initially enjoy legal freedom. He will not appreciate the responsibility.
Zach Meyers is a researcher at the Center for European Reform.
This comment was posted with permission from Project Syndicate — Elon Musk Twitter Test
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