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Elon Musk doesn’t know what it takes to make a digital town square

Before making big changes, he should ask the global pro-democracy activists who do.

October 29, 2022
Elon Musk's head on Twitter icon which is tied to an anvil
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Getty

It was in 2009 when the power of Twitter really became evident. As some Iranians tweeted through the country’s elections during a media blackout, the site began to emerge as a critical tool of global activists. Later movements, including the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the Movement for Black Lives, relied on Twitter to disseminate information and gain supporters.

If the platform’s new official “Chief Twit” Elon Musk sticks to his stated plans to overhaul a series of platform policies, these very users—arguably the users who made Twitter what it is—could face the most risk.

For one thing, the company has long resisted censorship demands from authoritarian countries that don’t comport with human rights standards. But Musk’s idea of following local laws as guidance for what’s allowed on Twitter—he has said it should “hew close to the laws of countries in which Twitter operates”—could mean that the company will begin complying with censorship policies and demands for user data that it has previously withstood.

For example, Qatar—whose government is one of Musk’s financial backers—has a law that threatens imprisonment or fines to “anyone who broadcasts, publishes, or republishes false or biased rumors, statements, or news, or inflammatory propaganda, domestically or abroad, with the intent to harm national interests, stir up public opinion, or infringe on the social system or the public system of the state.” The potential abuses of this law are myriad.

This, though, is just one possibility in the era of Musk, which is just beginning. Now that “the bird is freed,” as he wrote Thursday after officially taking over, many users are concerned that after years of slow improvements to the site’s functionality, policies, and moderation processes, the billionaire’s buyout will broadly result in its degradation.

These fears aren’t without justification: while so much of what Musk will do leaves us guessing, he has been clear that under his leadership, there will be sweeping policy changes. In addition to potentially following the local laws of authoritarian governments, this could include a loosening up of the platform’s speech rules and a user authentication requirement that would challenge the ability of users to remain anonymous. He has also made a number of pithy and sometimes contradictory statements about how he believes the site should moderate content—among them, that Twitter should and will remove only speech that is illegal.

And there are already moves that we don’t have to guess about. While Musk recently walked back claims that he planned to lay off one-third of the company’s workforce, it was reported late on Thursday that top executives had been fired and “hastily escorted” from the company’s headquarters. This included Vijaya Gadde, the company’s head of legal policy, trust, and safety, whom Musk had antagonized in an April tweet.

Gadde’s tenure was not without controversy, but under her leadership the legal team made significant policy strides, many of which aimed at protecting the platform’s most vulnerable users. Twitter pushed back at attempts by US courts to unmask anonymous users; cracked down on botnets and other influence operations; worked with the government of New Zealand to develop tools to facilitate independent research on the impacts of user interactions with algorithmic systems; banned political ads in the run-up to the 2020 US elections; and hired researchers to study the health of discourse on the site.

For many of Twitter’s vulnerable users, these changes represented great strides from its early days as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” where just about anything—including terrorist content, harassment, and hate speech—could be found. But Musk has stated that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” While he’s recently tempered earlier statements by saying that he won’t turn Twitter into a “free-for-all hellscape,” it seems pretty clear that the new chief intends to roll back some of Twitter’s rules.

Musk has also said that he would cut back on Twitter’s attempts to fight mis- and disinformation. This would be a mistake. Twitter has carefully crafted policies and tools that allow for free discourse while inhibiting the spread of false content, such as prompts that encourage users to actually read what they’re sharing, and labels that provide additional context to potential misinformation. With major elections approaching in dozens of countries in the coming two years, these tools are essential for ensuring that Twitter remains a space for civic engagement.

And perhaps most troubling for many of the activists who rely on the platform’s anonymity protections, Musk’s plans to require user authentication could mean an end to the freedom and security they’ve come to rely on. Pseudonymity and anonymity are essential to users who may have opinions or identities that don’t align with those in power. Even if Musk continues to allow pseudonyms, requiring users to hand over personal information could leave them vulnerable to data grabs by their governments.

Of course, not every idea of Musk’s is a bad one. He’s promised to encrypt direct messages, something that digital rights advocates have requested for many years, and which would enable Twitter users to communicate more safely without leaving the platform. He has also suggested that his goal is to give users more choice over what they see in their own feeds, which could strike a better balance for free expression in some of the areas where Twitter’s moderation has swung too far in the wrong direction.

Musk says he acquired Twitter because it is “important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner without resorting to violence.” He isn’t wrong about that, but he is wrong about how to get there. Instead of coming in guns blazing, I perhaps naively hope Musk will listen to experts and the site’s most vulnerable users to better understand the challenges they face and the complexities of moderating content on a site that on any given day can play host to a world leader’s tantrum or a movement for freedom.

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist whose work examines the impact of technology on our societal and cultural values. Based in Berlin, she is the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a fellow at the Center for Internet & Human Rights at the European University Viadrina, a visiting professor at the College of Europe Natolin, and the author of Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism (Verso 2021).

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