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What Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter means for free speech

Elon Musk offered to buy Twitter for $43 billion on April 14, in what he claimed was a move that would allow him to switch platforms to promote more “free speech.”

The world’s richest man calls himself a “free speech absolutist” and has criticized Twitter’s increasing use of content moderation.

“I invested in Twitter because I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the world, and I believe that free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy” , Musk said in an SEC filing disclosed Thursday. “However, since making my investment, I now realize that the business will not thrive or serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed into a private enterprise.

But many on the front lines of the fight for democratic spaces online have questioned whether Musk’s decision – whether it is indeed serious, and whether he can raise the necessary funds, and whether the offer is accepted by the Twitter board – would undermine, rather than strengthen, democracy. Platform employees and other experts have also publicly raised concerns that Musk is trying to erode Twitter’s recent moves to protect marginalized users and tackle harassment and misinformation.

Since the explosion in the use of social media over a decade ago, researchers and technologists have forged an understanding of how the design of social media sites impacts civic discourse and ultimately of account, on democratic processes. One of their key findings: Sites that prioritize free speech above all else tend to create spaces where civic discourse is drowned out by harassment, limiting participation to a select few.

This finding has informed much of Twitter’s recent work. Among its current declared priorities are promises to facilitate “safe, inclusive, and authentic conversations” and to “minimize the dissemination and reach of harmful or misleading information, particularly when intended to disrupt civic process or cause harm offline.”

A Twitter employee from the Health Team, who is focused on keeping Twitter a safe and friendly space, agreed to speak with TIME on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. “In a sense, [Musk’s] objectives are aligned with ours insofar as we are certainly interested in protecting democracy. But the idea of ​​bringing more free speech to the platform exposes its naivety when it comes to the inner workings of content moderation,” the person told TIME hours after the Musk’s offer has been made public. “If you look historically, there have been a lot of platforms built on this principle of free speech, but the reality is that either it becomes a cesspool that people don’t want to use or they realize that there is actually a need for some level of moderation.

It’s unclear what specific changes Musk is seeking to make to the platform beyond a popular promise to introduce an edit button to the site and a desire to make Twitter’s algorithm more transparent. But some employees have raised concerns that Musk is undermining the company’s commitments to ending targeted harassment and facilitating what it calls “conversational health.”

“From a health perspective, there are a lot of data scientists and policy researchers on Twitter who all have deep expertise in grounding policy trying to create that environment where inclusive conversations can take place” , said the health team’s Twitter employee. “Musk doesn’t have the experience to do this kind of work, but thinks he has the solution… Health is seen internally as a high priority. If Musk took over, it would feel like this health work would be deprioritized. »

Other experts in the field have criticized Musk’s apparent desire to roll back Twitter’s content moderation. “Effective moderation is not inherently in conflict with free speech,” Samidh Chakrabarti, former civic integrity officer at Facebook, said in a tweet on Thursday. “People need to feel free to talk. Anyone who doesn’t understand this has an understanding of societal issues at the high school level and has never spent [five minutes] working on trust and security.

“Musk has hinted that he wants Twitter to allow more of what could be considered harassment on the platform,” Tracy Chou, founder of Block Party, a third-party app for disabling harassment on Twitter, said Thursday. . “No matter what free speech advocates say, some moderation will always be needed or users will leave. The question is where the platform draws the line to what it wants to enforce.

Read more: Elon Musk offers to buy Twitter for $43 billion

Musk doesn’t appear to be offering anything drastically new — more of a throwback to an earlier, less regulated Twitter. Prior to the final months of the Trump era, Twitter was a platform that regularly cast itself as a free speech absolutist. For years, former CEO Jack Dorsey has pushed back against calls for tougher action against the rise of misinformation, harassment and conspiracy theories on his site by saying he was committed to freedom of expression.

But as the Trump presidency tested the limits of social media platforms’ ability to tolerate uninhibited speech, especially from those to whom it gives the biggest megaphones, Twitter has come increasingly to rely on content moderation – deleting tweets and accounts that violate its rules – with more subtle tweaks to the site’s design that aim to bolster the health of public conversation and the dissemination of reliable information.

This pivot to a more interventionist approach was summed up by Twitter’s final decision on January 6, 2021, to permanently ban Trump from the platform for attempting to undemocratically overturn the 2020 election results. (Some Onlookers wonder if Musk would seek to overturn Trump’s ban.In a TED Live interview on April 14, Musk said he would generally prefer Twitter to prioritize “timeouts over permanent bans.” )

Today, Twitter’s employee base is largely liberal, and many have spoken out publicly — via tweet — against Musk’s recent attempts to influence the company’s approach to content. Rumman Chowdhury, head of responsible machine learning at Twitter, said in a tweet that she had already observed a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Twitter employees after Musk’s public statements. “Twitter has a great culture of hilarious constructive criticism, and I’ve seen it go silent because of its minions attacking employees,” she wrote. (She later muted her notifications on the feed “because the trolls have come down.”)

Others have engaged in Twitter’s age-old tradition of sh-tposting. “Guys will try to buy companies instead of going to therapy,” mentioned Amro Mousa, another engineering manager at Twitter, on Thursday in a tweet that was retweeted by several of his colleagues.

Many still hope CEO Parag Agrawal and Twitter’s board will reject Musk’s offer to buy the company, which some financial analysts say undervalues ​​it. Another employee, who also spoke with TIME on condition of anonymity, said, “I can’t wait for Twitter to say no.”

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Write to Billy Perrigo at [email protected]


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