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Elon Musk’s Twitter ‘Free Speech’ Could Scare Advertisers

ELon Musk’s vision of removing Twitter Inc.’s content moderation safeguards is welcomed by free speech absolutists, but it risks creating a freedom for all that alienates advertisers and leaves users regularly subject to abuse.

Musk launched his $43 billion takeover bid on Twitter in a bid to unleash its potential to become the “world’s free speech platform.” He added that “freedom of expression is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy”.

But a website with little content moderation would be a concern for advertisers who are brand-conscious and don’t want their ads to appear alongside controversial posts. Ordinary people could also be banned from the site if it was overrun by stalkers or conspiracy theorists.

“The underlying concern would be that Twitter could become a toxic place and a toxic community,” said Joshua Lowcock, global head of media at media agency UM Worldwide.

Twitter, like other social media platforms, relies heavily on advertising, which accounted for nearly 90% of its $5.1 billion in revenue in 2021. Like its peers, especially Meta Platforms Inc., Twitter has had to struggling to balance how it regulates content. on the site. Conservatives are railing against what they claim is liberal bias, while others say the platform does not go far enough to curb calls for violence or hate speech. In 2020, dozens of companies – from Coca-Cola Co. to Microsoft Corp. – have suspended Meta’s Facebook advertising to protest harmful content on the site and fear that their ads may appear in association.

Musk, with more than 80 million Twitter followers, has long been one of the site’s most prominent users and also one of its most vocal critics. Much of Musk’s anger at Twitter has been directed at what he perceives as censorship by the platform, and he has sympathized with users who have been kicked out, such as conservative satirical publication Babylon Bee. The publication’s Twitter account was banned after a post about a transgender US government official was found to violate the platform’s rules. Soon after, Musk contacted the company and thought “he might need to buy Twitter.”

But many of Musk’s rants and jabs went unbanned. This includes memes that poke fun at transgender people and a since-deleted one comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Hitler. He also scorched a British cave explorer as a “pedo”.

Even with Twitter’s ever-changing content rules and policies, many users still face harassment and doxxing, or the exposure of personal details. Opening up the platform even more could make this problem worse.

“In terms of everyday users, people hate harassment,” said Matt Navarra, social media consultant and industry analyst. “Can you imagine if this was open to even more free speech and there were fewer policies, rules and repercussions? It wouldn’t be a place people wanted to hang out. »

For advertisers, the problem is not free speech, but rather the lack of any moderation of content on Twitter, said Lowcock of UM Worldwide. Under former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, “Twitter prioritized the health of the platform and that was appreciated by the advertising community,” he said. “Trust in the platform has increased. It’s unclear whether Musk will continue this approach or diverge altogether.

Of all the companies he’s worked at — from making electric vehicles to launching rockets and satellites — Musk hasn’t run one that’s primarily funded by advertising revenue. Before announcing he was considering acquiring Twitter, Musk offered to get rid of ads and reward verification checkmarks to users who paid for a subscription service.

“Musk has never shown any interest in an ad-supported business and it’s hoped he puts in lieutenants who understand the ad industry,” Lowcock said.

Musk framed his proposed bid as a fight for free speech, rather than his own financial benefit. “Creating a broadly inclusive, maximum-trust public platform is extremely supportive of the future of civilization,” he said. Granted, Musk himself doesn’t know if he’ll be successful with his offer, but he said he has a back-up plan if the company rejects his offer.

The billionaire entrepreneur isn’t alone in calling for more open discourse on the social media platform; the American Civil Liberties Union has long been critical of social media content moderation. But solving these problems shouldn’t be left to just one person, said Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU. “No matter how positive Musk’s intentions may be today, his intentions may change tomorrow and even if they remain good, the execution may be flawed,” she said.

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