Twitter bought by Elon Musk: should we expect more freedom or more hate messages?

Elon Musk poses on December 1, 2020 in Berlin. (©POOL/AFP/Archives/Britta Pedersen)

The takeover of Twitter by billionaire Elon Musk raises fears of an avalanche of hateful and dangerous messages on the platform, in the name of his conception of freedom of expression.

But experts are waiting to see how it handles the complex equation of content moderation.

A “free speech absolutist”

Attention danger ? With the takeover by the boss of Tesla and SpaceX, who wants to be an “absolutist of freedom of expression”, many voices are worried about a step back from the platform on the sensitive issue of its regulation.

“Mr. Musk: Free speech is great; hate speech is unacceptable”, summarized the president of the American organization for the defense of civil rights NAACP, Derrick Johnson.

“The last thing we need is a Twitter that deliberately turns a blind eye to violent speech against users, (…) including women, non-binary people and others,” added the director in charge of technology and human rights at Amnesty International, Michael Kleinman.

Confronted for two years with false information on the Covid, the World Health Organization also called on Elon Musk to assume his “enormous responsibility” on the subject, while the International Federation of Journalists saw in this takeover a “threat ( for) pluralism and freedom of the press”, as well as “a breeding ground for disinformation”.

Billionaire Elon Musk at the SpaceX Starship mega-rocket presentation on February 10, 2022 near Boca Chica, South Texas.
Billionaire Elon Musk at the SpaceX Starship mega-rocket presentation on February 10, 2022 near Boca Chica, South Texas. (©AFP/Archives/JIM WATSON)


“The extreme antibody-like reaction from those fearful of free speech speaks volumes,” Elon Musk tweeted Tuesday on the soon-to-be $44 billion social network. American conservatives and supporters of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro applauded his project, seeing it as the end of a form of “censorship”.

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It remains to be seen how the richest man in the world is going to set things up on a network that has around 217 million daily active users, more than 80% of them outside the United States.

Twitter has been trying for years to establish safeguards to contain hate speech, by hiding content or moderating it. Even, supreme weapon, by deleting accounts, as he had done in a spectacular way for that of former American president Donald Trump, in January 2021, after the assault on Capitol Hill against a backdrop of unfounded accusations of electoral fraud.

“It’s much easier to criticize the platform from the outside saying it doesn’t support free speech than to make it work and implement a content moderation policy,” warns the co -director of the Center for the Study of Social Media and Politics at New York University, Joshua Tucker.

“By ‘freedom of expression’, I simply mean what respects the law. The censorship to which I am opposed is that which goes far beyond (the framework of) the law”, then clarified Elon Musk, still on Twitter.


According to Joshua Tucker, the founder of Tesla could send a message by reopening Twitter to “conservative politicians”, first and foremost Donald Trump, who declined in advance. “But there is a real difference between this type of grand gesture and the day-to-day management of the platform, where the moderation mechanisms are there to fight against violent comments, or comments that threaten violence,” adds the researcher to AFP. .

“What types of content will he backtrack on? he asks again. On Tuesday, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, warned that Twitter “will have to adapt completely to European rules”, in particular the new regulation on digital services, the Digital Services Act (DSA), supposed to force large platforms to better fight against illegal content.

Greater openness would surely appeal to those who find the blue bird now more like a cage for non-politically correct speech.

Need renewal?

But “if it becomes a space for hateful content and chases away journalists, then Twitter loses its value,” said Karen North, professor of communications at the Annenberg School at the University of South Carolina.

“A good way to kill Twitter: remove it from the Stock Exchange and inconsequently reduce content moderation”, even adds on the platform Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at the University of New York.

According to him, the result “would be a tsunami of spam, porn, hate speech, QAnon, bullshit about ‘stolen elections’, etc. Goodbye ordinary users, goodbye advertisers,” he said.

Elon Musk, on the contrary, considers that Twitter is losing momentum and needs renewal.

Source: © 2022 AFP

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