What Elon Musk's Twitter Takeover Might Mean For Free Speech
The self-appointed Chief Twit has arrived.
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So it’s finally happened. Elon Musk is now the Chief Twit, having seemingly completed his deal to take over Twitter. You all know the story by now - deal on, deal off, court, no court. Ultimately, Musk is in and some of the most senior figures at the company are out. CNBC reported that CEO Parag Agrawal and CFO Ned Segal have been fired. Head of legal policy, trust and safety Vijaya Gadde is also out the door, along with general counsel Sean Edgett, according to the Washington Post. Musk’s arrival was never going to be quiet, but that is quite the start.
There are a number of key issues that go alongside this flurry of activity. For starters, he may be a keen user, but how dedicated to Twitter, the business, is Musk? Between Tesla and SpaceX he already has rather a lot on his plate!
For those in the media sphere, surely the most important thing is which content rules and restrictions will go and which will stay in place. This goes way beyond whether or not Donald Trump or Kanye West are allowed back on the platform, as important and symbolic as those issues are. How will the way we “normals” report and deal with trolling and other such behaviour change, if at all? What happens if journalists want to share an unflattering story about Musk or his companies on Twitter? Would Musk actually intervene to stop that? There is absolutely no hint of that happening yet, but there is definitely the potential for uncomfortable situations and conflicts of interest to arise.
As it happens, and as I’ve said before, Musk may be a self-professed “free speech absolutist” but I don’t think there will be any desire to really loosen the reigns. Certainly not for the foreseeable future. Musk has already posted a note aimed at advertisers in which he said Twitter “cannot become a free-for-all hellscape.”
It is also crucial to balance the desire for free speech with the need to counter real, harmful disinformation. Furthermore, how can a powerful platform like Twitter support those trying to overcome authoritarian regimes? Martin Bright, Editor-at-Large at Index on Censorship, told The Addition:
Social media challenges all our assumptions about free speech. Campaigners need to decide whether they believe those spreading lies and disinformation are really having their free speech rights curtailed. Elon Musk describes himself as a defender of free speech - he would do well to look at what Twitter can do to help to amplify dissident voices in Russia, China and Iran before giving Donald Trump back his megaphone.
It is a very valid point. (Musk, it should be noted, has essentially provided the internet for Ukraine since the invasion by Russia via SpaceX’s Starlink system, despite recent threats to stop doing so.)
Bright’s comment also perfectly and succinctly highlights how messy and complicated these issues are. However, we should not expect to have any clarity on what Musk will do anytime soon. Based on the way his deal to purchase Twitter has gone, things could change one way, then another, very quickly. For now, at least, the new boss seems to be happy:
This Week’s Podcast
Catherine Perloff, platforms reporter at AdWeek, joined The Addition podcast this week to discuss how marketers and media buyers are reacting to the ability to the prospect of advertising on Netflix, how the streamer is handling the technology to make it happen, and when we might know if it is actually working for everybody involved.