Musk’s place on Twitter sparks debate over platform safety and free speech

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Twitter’s announcement on Tuesday that the company would appoint billionaire Elon Musk to its board is sparking debate and criticism amid fears that Tesla’s CEO could change the nature of a much-used social media forum in companies. media circles.

Musk has been an active Twitter user and has at times criticized the company, saying in recent weeks that it has strayed from free speech principles.

As Twitter’s largest shareholder, Musk would advise Twitter on how to moderate content and vet users, including politicians.

Twitter was instrumental in the political rise of former President Trump. But the former president hasn’t been able to find a similar tool to connect with large audiences since Twitter pulled him from the platform following the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol.

Musk’s new position as a member of Twitter’s board of directors for at least two years has excited Republicans, who hope it will usher in an era of relaxed content moderation.

But some progressive activists, tech executives and academics fear Musk’s influence could lead to a more hostile platform.

“The problem is that we’re engaged in a global effort to figure out how best to use the internet as a platform for democracy, and Elon Musk has been, for a variety of reasons that I can only guess, has been very critical of. regard to these types of efforts and espouses a very simplistic political philosophy that will invariably lead to greater degrees of social inequality and present obstacles to the democratic process,” said Aram Sinnreich, director of communication studies at American University. “And that’s a big step back.”

Unlike Facebook, which left open the possibility of bringing Trump’s account back to 2023, Twitter permanently banned Trump from the site after last year’s uprising. Company executives later doubled down, saying that even if Trump runs for office again, he will remain banned from the platform.

But conservatives hope Musk’s placement on Twitter’s board will mean the return of Trump’s account and have been heartened by Musk’s calls for less content moderation.

“Now that @ElonMusk is Twitter’s largest shareholder, it’s time to lift political censorship. Oh…and bring back TRUMP! Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) tweeted.

Boebert was one of many users on the platform calling for Trump’s return after it was revealed Musk would join Twitter’s board.

In a statement, Twitter said its policy decisions were “not determined by the board or shareholders” and the company had “no intention of overriding policy decisions.”

“As always, our Board of Directors plays an important advisory and feedback role throughout our service. Our day-to-day operations and decisions are made by Twitter management and employees,” the company said.

Republicans have long accused Twitter and other mainstream social media platforms of censoring conservative content. The charges have been a driving force behind Republican efforts to repeal or reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides a liability shield for internet companies based on content posted by third parties.

Musk revealed on Monday that he had acquired a 9.2% stake in Twitter. In the weeks leading up to the announcement, the tech mogul used the platform to quiz his followers about free speech on Twitter.

“Freedom of expression is essential to the functioning of a democracy. Do you believe that Twitter strictly adheres to this principle? Musk tweeted on March 25.

He told his followers that the “consequences” of the ballot will be “significant” and to vote carefully.

The informal results ended with 70% “no” votes, and Musk said that as a “de facto public square”, Twitter’s failure “to adhere to the principles of free speech fundamentally undermines the democracy”.

“Is a new platform needed?” he tweeted.

It’s unclear to what extent Musk will play a direct role in influencing Twitter’s policy decisions. He is limited to owning more than 14.9% of Twitter shares, according to a filing by the company with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“I interpret this to mean that Twitter has structured the deal in a way that makes it almost impossible for Musk to gain control on his own or through combined ownership,” said Tim Karr, senior director of strategy and communications at Free Press. “If he wants to change the company’s moderation practices and rules, he will need to work closely with other board members and company executives and staff.”

“If he’s going to come up with ideas on how to moderate better and in a more sophisticated way, I’m sure the company will be more than willing to listen. But as other failing platforms show, if you want to operate on a large scale, making civil space is both difficult and necessary,” Karr added in an email.

Musk has already suggested changes are coming. He tweeted on Tuesday that he is “looking forward to working with [Twitter CEO] Parag [Agrawal] & Twitter Board to make significant improvements to Twitter in the coming months!

While the level of influence Musk may have on Twitter remains unclear, with his tweets signaling Twitter’s desire to withdraw some of its content moderation policies, coupled with allegations of racism within Musk’s electric car company , Tesla, are sounding the alarm from activists and some technicians. frames.

“The kind of libertarian view that Musk has espoused, which is this kind of easy premise that, for example, all speech is good speech and all speech is of equal value, is nonsense and has been demonstrated in a thousand and one different ways as wrong,” says Sinnreich.

Ellen K. Pao, former CEO of Reddit and co-founder and CEO of non-profit organization Project Include, tweeted: “I hope the Twitter team finds a way to limit Musk’s influence.”

“They’ve made progress on harassment, and now they’re a target. He wants to bring them back to a free game, and most users don’t want that at all,” she added.

Anil Dash, CEO of software startup Glitch, say it “The chilling effect on journalism on Twitter will be severe.”

“Musk has been known to directly target his critics, including crushing one of his earliest vocal critics. Twitter won’t ban him as a board member the next time he attacks a journalist,” Dash tweeted.

The focus on allowing everyone, if not most, to speak is, however, one of the main reasons Republicans have hailed Musk’s role on Twitter’s board.

“I think it’s fabulous,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told The Hill. “Elon believes in freedom. Elon is an entrepreneur. Elon is such an American success story.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of the most vocal critics of tech companies’ content moderation policies, told reporters that Musk’s new tie to Twitter is “a good thing” and “cannot be than help”.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who was permanently banned from Twitter in January, told The Hill that “it depends on what he does,” but said she “would like to see someone a takeover of Twitter that will truly bring freedom of expression”. back and not just for, you know, I dunno, like the Taliban and all types of bad guys who want to tweet whatever they want or do porn.

Greene has been permanently suspended due to repeated violations of Twitter’s COVID-19 misinformation policy.

Emily Brooks contributed.

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