- Lifestyle & Sports
- 04 May 22
But can we believe him? The Tesla billionaire is set to be the sole owner of Twitter, one of the largest social media networks in the world. Now, Elon Musk has unveiled his 'vision' for the future of the app, which includes less content regulation and more (so called) freedom of speech. He could be on a collision course with European regulators...
After weeks of hushed whispers, nudges and rumours, it’s official: Tesla founder Elon Musk, reportedly the richest person in the world, is set to be the sole owner of Twitter.
Previously a publicly traded company, Twitter Inc. has accepted Musk’s $44 billion (€38 billion) bid to take over ownership of the platform. The billionaire has indicated that he cares little about the economics of the purchase and that profiting off the app is not his objective.
But there are those who would argue that this is PR guff that can be taken with a pinch of salt – because, they say, Elon Musk is not exactly a man of his word.
In October of 2021, the Head of the United Nations Food Agency David Beasley made a public call-out to Musk and Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest men, for support. In response, Musk declared to the world that if the World Food Programme could present a plan to end world hunger for $6 Billion, he would “sell tesla stock rick now” and provide the funds.
Earlier this year, the U.N. reportedly presented their plan, which would enable them to give at least one meal a day to millions of starving people around the globe. Rather than carrying through on his original promise, the billionaire has handed a $44 Billion check to Twitter for sole control of the app.
An avid Tweeter himself, Musk has now highlighted his 'vision' for the platform to the world through a series of messages, most of which focussed on the issue of 'censorship' on the app.
Musk made a statement via Twitter on Monday following the announcement of the purchase, proclaiming that “Free Speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square when matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
🚀💫♥️ Yesss!!! ♥️💫🚀 pic.twitter.com/0T9HzUHuh6
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
The comment comes against an increasingly fraught backdrop within the organisation. Twitter leaders like Vijaya Gadde, head of legal, policy and trust, have faced considerable criticism from free speech absolutists and right-wing users of the app. Gadde made the brave move of removing political advertising from the site and was also responsible for having former U.S. President Donald Trump removed from the app following the 2021 attack on Capitol Hill. This action led the former US President to create his own – so far failed – rival to Twitter, Truth Social.
Already, app users have raised concerns over what Musk’s changes might look like for the future of the platform, with issues of hate and disinformation being a major worry. Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, leader of the Civil Engagement Group in the Seanad, has shared her anxieties about the takeover, and about the ability of individuals to accumulate untold wealth. “There’s fundamental issues in terms of Twitter,” Senator Higgins said. “The idea of certain individuals having such a level of control on these platforms would, of course, be of significant concern. It’s another reminder that we not only need to regulate online media platforms, but we should do better at regulating and taxing billionaires.” Twitter – along with most of the Big Tech names – has a major European base in Dublin with 500+ employees.
Meanwhile, Musk insists that he intends Twitter to be “politically neutral.”
Whether that is a coded invitation to the former President Donald Trump to return to the platform remains to be seen. If a 'light touch' is applied to content moderation, Trump is not the only controversial figure who might be free to return to Twitter – and thereby to promote misinformation campaigns, lies and fantasies in order to influence public opinion. “What we want to make sure is we’re not just talking about someone putting up a bad, untrue image or statement, but that we tackle the companies who are rewarding and amplifying it,” Senator Higgins stated.
Musk also threatened that while Twitter will remain free for casual users, there may be "a slight cost for commercial/government users."
We spoke with Paul Quigley, the CEO of Dublin-based company NewsWhip, which works to track the spread of news stories, disinformation and narratives across the web and various social platforms.
“If there’s less moderation, it’s hard to see there not being more misinformation and disinformation,” Quigley says of Musk’s vision to only censor content which is clearly unlawful. “It’s almost mathematical that there will be.”
In Ireland, the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill – which amends Ireland’s Broadcasting Act of 2009 – is currently passing through the Committee stage in the Oireachtas, with the help of Senator Higgins and her colleagues. It divides harmful content into two groups. Under the provisions of the bill, an coimisiún (the commission) would conduct risk assessment of certain platforms and content, such as Twitter, and minimise the availability of harmful online content – as well as, hopefully, regulating internet behaviour. For anyone who doubts that the bill can have a significant impact on American media companies, a look at the impact of the General Data Protection Regulation from a few years back is informative. “Ireland is a really significant regulator,” Senator Higgins asserts. “I went and spoke to attorney generals in America [in 2018] and some of them were very sceptical that it would have any impact, but we have seen that it actually has.”
Musk has stated that he won’t allow the platform to become a source of illegal content.
Musk’s plans for Twitter, which the mogul has outlined include, “end to end encryption like Signal, so no one can spy on or hack your messages.” Which only makes it harder to see how the platform can comply with the proposed Bill, especially given Musk’s apparently naive – though more likely cynical – emphasis on ‘Freedom of Speech'.
The planned takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk is not the only controversial issue regarding technology companies in Dublin right now. An array of Big Tech companies, from Facebook to Google, have their European headquarters in Dublin, not only benefiting from low corporation tax but also occupying massive sites amid Dublin’s ongoing housing crisis. It begs the question many Dubliners are asking: with constant construction underway in the city, why are so many people still unable to find accommodation?
“It is a reminder of how housing cannot be market-led, but (must be) policy-led,” says Senator Higgins, adding, “You have a really small number of individuals who have almost as much wealth as half of the planet. It creates a power inequality that is at odds with the ideals of a democratic world where people can have an equal say.”
The housing crisis and the issue of internet safety and regulation are the kind of discussions that have to take place simultaneously in government. The current property market is badly distorted since the crash of 2007, making it extremely difficult for most young people to either buy or rent homes. Build-to-rent style apartments are an increasingly dominant offer, with institutional owners effectively driving rent upwards.
“When you say freedom of expression, you allow money to amplify (what is being said) in a way that others cannot, and determine who gets heard,” Senator Higgins remarks.
I asked Paul Quigley for his thoughts on Twitter’s decision to remove controversial accounts in the past. “A lot of people are wrong on the internet everyday," he observes, "but do they get to go viral and influence millions of people? I think that’s a key thing.”
On the assumption that the takeover by Elon Musk goes ahead, the future of Twitter is shrouded in a different kind of uncertainty. But one thing is clear: if Musk aims to reduce the influence of moderation and regulation, and allows removed serial abusers of the truth to re-join its online community, Twitter will likely find itself in conflict with European regulators, and in particular with Ireland, as it works double-time to raise the bar for the veracity, fairness and reliability of online content and conduct.
Real issues of freedom are at stake, But they do not simply have to do with the kind of "freedom of expression" in which some people demand the right to shout "FIRE" in a crowded cinema – when there is none. “It is about people being given the right to participate and driving out the things which limit them from that freedom,” Senator Alice-Mary Higgins adds.
“We are going to see a huge conflict between the U.S. First Amendment and Freedom of Expression principles and online safety laws coming out of Europe,” Paul Quigley predicts. “Ireland won’t be alone.”
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 03 Oct 18