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Elon Musk and freedom of expression

Elon Musk and freedom of expression

Elon Musk claims that he wants to buy Twitter because he believes in its “potential as a platform for free expression around the planet,” which, in his opinion, will not be fully exploited by those who run the social network. As such, after buying 9.2 percent of the company’s shares (to become its largest shareholder), Musk last week offered all Twitter shareholders to buy their shares, in a financial deal worth $43 billion. To prevent purchase, the company’s board of directors has agreed Some unusual rules that should limit the risk of a hostile takeover.

Musk is the richest person in the world and is famous for being the CEO of a company TeslaAnd his electric car company and private space company SpaceX. He has many fans and supporters with whom he has a fairly direct relationship on Twitter, the social network with which he has repeatedly said that he prefers to say how he thinks about various issues and interacts with those who follow him.

Despite being a frequent user, over time Musk has criticized Twitter on several occasions, suggested changes to some features and argued that its algorithms were not transparent in some cases and restricted the free expression of members of the social network. The criticism has gradually become more frequent, to the point that some speculate that Musk was planning to leave Twitter to establish an alternative service where there would be virtually no moderation.

Before buying a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, Musk denied he was interested in becoming a shareholder, and he also ruled out ownership of the social network, just days before he made his bid for the purchase. Then things quickly changed, which led to the proposal to acquire Twitter and withdraw all of its shares from the stock exchange, making the company unlisted.

at letter Sending to Twitter to inform the company of the proposal, and in documents to US supervisory authorities, Musk wrote that he wanted to move forward with the purchase to preserve freedom of expression, which he defined as a “company imperative and to ensure the functioning of democracy.” Musk then clarified that he did not believe the current Twitter executives were able to guarantee this circumstance: “Since I started my investment, I have realized that the company will never be able to exploit or deliver this necessity to the company in its current form. Twitter must be transformed and made a company. Unlisted “.

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These allegations have been pushed different the watchers Musk wonders what “freedom of expression” means, and above all if he has any idea of ​​the great complexity of a topic that has been debated for decades among jurists, communication experts and politicians, especially with regard to social networks and in general the Internet. The concept of freedom of expression varies greatly depending on the countries and the rules set by their governments.

In the United States, freedom of expression is protected by the constitution and comes before many possibilities of restriction. In many European Union countries the rules are similar albeit with some other restrictions, while in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes the possibility of free self-expression is very limited and also links social networks .

A decade ago, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo She said That his social network was for freedom of expression in the highest forms possible. At that time, social networks had been around for a few years and seemed to be a system to contribute to the free dissemination of information, and in some cases to overcome censorship by governments. Twitter, for example, was central to the demonstrations and revolutions of the so-called “Arab Spring”, as well as to the dissemination of classified news about the activities of governments by various organizations starting with WikiLeaks.

But in the following years, things quickly changed. In many countries, laws have been enacted to limit the dissemination of certain information, in some cases with the aim of limiting the circulation of false news and disinformation activities, and in other cases with the express purpose of censoring content and impeding the dissemination of independent news. outside the control of governments. In a short time, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks found themselves forced to diversify and adapt their operations in different countries, in accordance with the laws on freedom of expression and the dissemination of certain information.

With some exceptions, in the West, the ability to express oneself freely on social networks has been preserved, leaving the companies they run with the task of overseeing the contents and ensuring that what is circulated on their platforms is permitted by law. Social network administrators on several occasions received criticism for their moderate activities, which they considered insufficient and ineffective especially in combating disinformation and hate messages, and they ended up at the center of government investigations in the United States and the European Union, some of which are still in progress.

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In such a complex setting, with many nuances and implications, Musk’s statements about free speech seemed to many a public to lack great knowledge on a topic that had been debated for decades. In a recent interview, Musk said that Twitter’s freedoms of expression should in any case “conform to what the laws of individual countries allow” and defined the social network as an “agora” for making one’s thoughts public and comparing them. with these other people.

In fact, the “agora” function is not performed by a single social network, but by the entire Internet, of which Twitter is a small part, with a relatively small number of users (about 200 million daily users) compared to other more popular platforms, such as Facebook Or Instagram or TikTok.

In the interview, Musk showed that he is interested above all in the regulations that he says can make Twitter’s business more transparent: “It’s really important that people have the awareness and the ability to be able to speak freely within the confines of the law. […] I think in general the risks to civilization diminish as we can increase trust in Twitter as a public platform.”

Musk had mentioned the concept of transparency associated with Twitter on other occasions, when he suggested making the algorithms that make the social network run free. Its use allows Twitter to highlight certain tweets based on individual users’ interests, report on the most discussed topics on the platform, and ultimately encourage use of the social network by increasing the engagement of individual users.

Like other platforms, Twitter also does not provide accurate information about how its algorithms work, both because they can be copied by competition and because, with their knowledge, some users can take advantage of it to try to force their own content on the contents of others. . Musk believes that making algorithms and their work public will lead to a more free platform, a kind of decentralized social network where everyone can change and tweak the algorithm’s performance at will.

However, it is not clear how such an approach can better guarantee freedom of expression, given that Twitter still has the task of implementing moderation activities and ensuring that content posted by users complies with the laws of individual countries. Generic algorithms can also be exploited by those carrying out disinformation campaigns to force their contents on the majority of users, who would not have the knowledge to customize or modify the algorithms to their liking. As some observers have noted, Google has always kept its algorithms working secretly precisely to prevent site administrators from taking advantage of them, and to highlight their own content even if it is less relevant than others to some online search.

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Jack Dorsey, the social network’s former co-founder and longtime CEO, had already thought of a decentralized and more personalized version of Twitter. At the end of 2019 the project had started the sky is blue Trying to make it happen, but more than two years later, the initiative doesn’t seem to have made much progress, and has become less important after new CEO Parag Agrawal took over the company.

Indeed, Elon Musk may prove to be an obstacle to freedom of expression on Twitter. Should it gain complete control of the social network, and withdraw it from the financial markets, it could make it more vulnerable than now to extortion by governments bent on limiting the free circulation of information. Musk, for example, has great interests in countries where there are plants to build Tesla. If one of these countries decides to impose more restrictions on social networks, it may put pressure on the owner of Twitter by threatening to review or withdraw his car company’s factory permits. The same could happen with SpaceX, which transports satellites into space on behalf of many governments besides the United States.

Over the course of his career, Musk has shown that he can achieve ambitious goals, from building self-driving electric cars to reusable rockets that have made space more accessible and will continue to do so in the coming decades, also in light of new interplanetary exploration. It has been able to do this in areas where human unpredictability is reaching a certain point, especially when compared to the areas of communication and its evolution, which have seen a significant acceleration from the internet and beyond.

Companies that operate large platforms have experienced this in a tangible and sometimes dramatic way, and are still working today to create systems and solutions that combine freedom of expression, the laws of individual countries, and the growth opportunities for their services. It seems that Musk’s remarks do not take it into account and draw the comparison back to the issues now being superseded by the limited progress made in recent years, on which platforms are trying to build their future.