Elon Musk’s on again/off again attempts to purchase Twitter appear to be back on track. On Tuesday, the world’s wealthiest person, reversed himself and said that he would honor his original offer to buy Twitter for $44 billion, despite having previously tried to back out of the deal.
Musk’s likely purchase of Twitter could impact how Twitter’s millions of users are affected by the platform but it could also impact democracy in the United States and the world because Twitter has an oversized impact on public opinion — beyond just what Twitter’s 238 million active daily users see. Some of what is said on Twitter, at least by its most famous users, is repeated and amplified in other media.
What concerns me about Musk’s likely purchase is that he has said he would loosen up Twitter’s moderation policies tweeting, in April, “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.”
That and other statements from Musk are a bit vague — I’m not sure what “far beyond” actually means. Currently, Twitter and most other social networks have moderation policies that ban quite a bit of speech and behavior which most people would consider reprehensible yet is — at least in the United States — protected by the first amendment. But it’s worth reminding people that the first amendment applies to government, not companies. If you walk into a grocery store and start spewing racist or otherwise offensive comments, you can be asked to leave, even though you may have a legal right to say those things in your own home, on public property or any other place where the proprietor allows such speech.
So, yes, if Musk buys Twitter he would have a legal right to allow speech that is racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, cruel and otherwise offensive — at least in the U.S. and other countries where such speech is allowed. He might run into trouble in some countries, like Germany, which has prohibitions on certain types of hate speech that is legal in the United States.
Can impact anyone
Even if you don’t use Twitter, what happens on Twitter could affect you. I don’t know if any of the police officers who were attacked on January 6 had seen social media chatter ahead of the attacks, but all of them were affected by rhetoric and planning that took place online. There are many people whose lives and safety have been affected by social media attacks, regardless of whether they saw those posts.
I’m sure that even Musk will delete posts and suspend accounts that directly advocate violence against individuals or groups, but there are many examples of posts with “dog whistles” or other potentially inflammatory content that could lead to violence, as we saw in the runup to January 6 and continue to see on some other sites, including Donald Trump’s recent dangerous and racist post on his site Truth Social where he said that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel “has a DEATH WISH. Must immediately seek help and advise from his China loving wife, Coco Chow!” That’s an example of a legal post which could lead some unhinged individuals to take matters into their own hands.
There were numerous examples of posts prior to January 6 that sparked the anger that led up to the January 6 attack on our capitol. Many appeared on mainstream sites like Twitter and Facebook, while other more blatant ones showed up on far-less moderated sites and apps. As the New York Times reported, “On social media sites used by the far-right, such as Gab and Parler, directions on which streets to take to avoid the police and which tools to bring to help pry open doors were exchanged in comments. At least a dozen people posted about carrying guns into the halls of Congress.”
Beyond politics, I worry about plain old cyberbullying that can affect anyone on Twitter, including young people. Saying something nasty about individuals or piling on with multiple negative comments may not violate the law, but it can do real harm. There are numerous Twitter policies designed to prevent harassment, that could go by the wayside if Musk takes over and decides to loosen some of moderation policies.
Since 2016, my nonprofit, ConnectSafely, has been an unpaid member of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, which regularly meets to discuss Twitter policies on topics such as “online Safety and harassment, human and digital rights, suicide prevention and mental health, child sexual exploitation, and dehumanization,” as Twitter explains in this about post. The council doesn’t make policy but it does advise Twitter on how it can help keep people safe and avoid some of the very problems we’ve seen over the past several years.
When it comes to moderation, Twitter is far from perfect. Things that shouldn’t be allowed slip through and occasionally a moderator takes down content that should have been allowed. And, of course, not everyone will agree on every policy or every time a piece of content was or wasn’t taken down. Moderation policies are complicated, which is why Meta embowed an oversight board made up of experts to make binding decisions – sometimes overruling decisions made by Meta’s own moderation teams.
But, as imperfect or imperfectly enforced as any set of policies may be, they at least provide a framework for keeping dangerous and harmful content off the platform while allowing people to express their opinions on virtually any subject.
Yes, I’ve seen plenty of people complain about undue political censorship on Twitter, but ironically most of the complaints I’ve seen have been on Twitter itself. In most cases, these complaints are coming from the millions of conservatives who remain on Twitter, including several members of Donald Trump’s family who Tweet on a regular basis despite the unfounded claims that pro-Trump speech is banned on Twitter. It’s not banned. What is banned are posts and certain accounts that have broken rules as those that prohibit harassment, hate speech and inciting violence.
Irony of “Section 230”
Musk’s likely takeover is coming at a time when leaders of both major parties are advocating a change in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Actthat protects companies like Twitter from civil liability for harm that could result from what users post. President Biden has recently said he wants to see that law changed, but most of the pressure has come from Republicans, including Trump. Ironically, if 230 is removed or amended, that could put pressure on Musk to be very careful about what he does allow on the platform by taking away his protection if he allows harmful content to be posted. Trump railed against 230 because he thought it gave these platforms the ability to censor him but it actually does just the opposite. Some of Trump’s own posts, before he was banned, could have been the basis for successful lawsuits against Twitter and Facebook.
We live in a country where money can buy lots of things — including media platforms — so I’m not sure there’s anything anyone other than Twitter’s board can do to prevent Musk from taking over, even though it may impact us all.
Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely which has received advertising credits from Twitter to promote its Safer Internet Day programs