What Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter means for freedom of expression

EIon Musk offered to buy Twitter for $43 billion on April 14. He claimed it was a move that would allow him to change the platform to encourage more “freedom of speech”.

The richest man in the world describes himself as 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 a statement released Thursday SEC filing. “However, since making my investment, I have come to realize that the company will not thrive in its current form, nor will it serve this societal imperative. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”

But many on the front lines of the fight for online democratic spaces have questioned whether Musk’s move — if he’s genuinely serious and can raise the required cash, and if the offer is accepted by Twitter’s board of directors — would undermine rather than strengthen , democracy. Platform employees and other experts have also spoken publicly about their fears that Musk may seek to undermine Twitter’s recent moves to protect marginalized users and combat harassment and misinformation.

Since the explosion in social media use more than a decade ago, researchers and technologists have developed an understanding of how the design of social media websites impacts civic discourse and ultimately democratic processes. One of her key takeaways: Websites that privilege free speech above all else tend to lead to spaces where civil society discourse is drowned out by harassment and participation is limited to a privileged few.

This realization has influenced much of Twitter’s recent work. Stated under his current priorities are promises to enable “safe, inclusive, and authentic conversations” and to “minimize the spread and reach of harmful or misleading information, particularly when the intent is to disrupt a citizen process or cause offline harm.”

A Health Team Twitter worker, who is focused on making Twitter a safe, easy-to-use place, agreed to speak to TIME on condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “In a way [Musk’s] Goals align with ours in that we are quite interested in protecting democracy. But the idea of ​​bringing more free speech to the platform exposes his naivety about the nuts and bolts of content moderation,” the person told TIME a few hours after Musk’s offer was made public. “If you look into the past, there have been many platforms based on this principle of free speech, but the reality is that it’s either becoming a cesspool that people don’t want to use, or they realize there’s an actual need for it for some there is measure of moderation.”

It’s unclear what specific changes Musk plans to make to the platform, aside from a popular promise to introduce an edit button on the site and a desire to make Twitter’s algorithm more transparent. However, some employees have expressed fears that Musk would undermine the company’s commitments to ending targeted harassment and facilitating what it calls “health talks.”

“From a health perspective, there are many data scientists and policy researchers on Twitter, all of whom have in-depth expertise in justifying policies to create that environment for inclusive conversations to take place,” said the Twitter health worker. “Musk doesn’t have the background for this type of work but believes he has the solution…Health is seen as a big priority internally. If Musk took control, you would feel like this health work would be deprioritized.”

Other experts in the field have criticized Musk’s apparent desire to unmoderate Twitter’s content. “Effective moderation does not necessarily conflict with freedom of expression,” Samidh Chakrabarti, former head of Facebook’s civic integrity department, said in a tweet on Thursday. “It requires people to feel free to speak. Anyone who doesn’t get this is high school stoner level for societal issues and has never spent money [five minutes] Work on trust and security.”

“Musk has indicated that he would like Twitter to allow more of what could be considered harassment on the platform,” Tracy Chou, the founder of Block Party, a third-party app for muting harassment on Twitter, said in one statement to TIME on Thursday. “No matter what free speech advocates declare, some moderation will always be necessary or users will leave. The question is where the platform draws the line to what it wants to enforce.”

Continue reading: Elon Musk is offering to buy Twitter for $43 billion

Musk doesn’t appear to be proposing anything radically new – rather a return to an earlier, less regulated Twitter. Before the final months of the Trump era, Twitter was a platform that regularly posed as a free speech absolutist. For years, former CEO Jack Dorsey has resisted calls for a tougher crackdown on the rise of misinformation, harassment and conspiracy theories on his website saying He was committed to freedom of speech.

But as Trump’s presidency tested the limits of social media platforms’ ability to tolerate free speech, particularly from those who give it the biggest megaphones, Twitter increasingly relied on content moderation — deleting tweets and accounts that violating its rules — and more subtle changes to the site’s design intended to bolster the health of public conversation and the spread of reliable information.

This shift toward a more interventionist approach was reflected in Twitter’s eventual decision on January 6, 2021, to permanently ban Trump from the platform for attempting to undemocratically overturn the results of the 2020 election. (Some viewers are wondering if Musk would try to reverse Trump’s ban. In a live TED 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 publicly spoken out — via tweet — against Musk’s recent attempts to influence the company’s approach to content. Rumman Chowdhury, Twitter’s head of responsible machine learning, said in a tweet that she had already seen a chilling effect on Twitter workers’ freedom of expression after Musk’s public statements. “Twitter has a wonderful culture of hilarious constructive criticism, and I’ve watched it die down as his minions attacked employees,” she wrote. (She subsequently muted her notifications in the thread “because the trolls descended.”)

Others practiced the time-honored Twitter tradition of sh-tposting. “Guys will try to buy companies instead of going to therapy” called Amro Mousa, another engineering manager at Twitter, in a tweet on Thursday that was retweeted by several of his colleagues.

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

More must-read stories from TIME

write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com.

https://time.com/6167099/twitter-employees-elon-musk-free-speech/ What Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter means for freedom of expression

Justin Scacco

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