With Twitter Inc. agreeing to its acquisition by Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest person, at a price of $44 billion, the grapevine is abuzz with the changes that the platform might see in the coming days. Musk plans to take the platform private and is paying $54.20 per share of common stock, which is at a 38% premium to the closing price at the beginning of the month.
The deal has been endorsed by Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of the platform, who said, “This is the right path.” Dorsey has referred to Twitter as the “closest thing we have to a global consciousness” and spoke about the need to reclaim Twitter from the grip of the ad model and Wall Street. He has also said, in no uncertain terms, that Elon Musk is the singular solution he trusts. Dorsey, in his endorsement, also tried to show that there is synergy between Musk and Parag Agarwal’s goals. The beleaguered CEO of Twitter has been at the receiving end of Musk’s ire for unfair bans on users. In a meme posted by Musk, he had compared Agarwal to Joseph Stalin.
Musks's Vision for a New Twitter
Elon Musk has been a vocal supporter of free speech and has been one of the most prolific users of the platform, since long before acquiring the 9% stake in the company. Amongst the many major changes that Musk proposes for Twitter, the most significant ones are the universal verification of all human users and making the company’s algorithm public. Universal verification would be part of the battle against bots and sock puppets, and could actually work. Making the algorithm public is a great step to enhance transparency in a business that feeds on security and opaqueness and addresses the concerns of users who believe that tweets are unfairly promoted or demoted.
Amongst the other proposed changes, Musk plans on adding an edit feature to Twitter, though all likes and retweets for the edited tweet would be set back to zero. A couple of outlandish ideas, too, feature in Musk’s plans, which include converting the company’s San Francisco headquarters into a homeless shelter, an idea endorsed by Bezos, and dropping the ‘w’ from Twitter. The second idea is not very surprising for a man who named his first child X Æ A-12 Musk.
Elon Musk has also been highly critical of the moderation policy on the platform, which, he has maintained, is restrictive to free speech.
The speculation is that Musk might bring Donald Trump back on the platform, who was banned on almost all social media platforms after his alleged role in the 6 January Capitol riots in the US. Trump was one of the most vociferous voices on the platform before his ban, often announcing policy directions directly on Twitter and connecting with his followers. Trump, though, has indicated in an exchange with Fox News that he was not going back to Twitter and would stay on TRUTH, the platform he has backed, though he has not used it since February.
A Tightrope Walk in Store
However, the big question would be the tightrope walk that Musk would have to do to adhere to his vision of freedom of speech while toeing the legislative line that seeks to control social media platforms. The European Union has just passed the Digital Services Act, which purports to bring in significant regulations for social media platforms and heavy penalties. The efforts in the US to regulate Big Tech are quite clear, and while the political divide might have brought some respite, for now, there would be regulations. Many countries are also implementing changes to their own management of the social media space, often creating serious social and political issues with rampant uncontrolled tweets.
India is a very significant case in point. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, have placed numerous obligations on significant social media intermediaries, which include strict due diligence, removing or disabling content within 36 hours of receiving actual knowledge in the form of a court order or notification from the government that the content is prohibited information and to provide any information in its possession within 72 hours of receiving an order from an investigative agency.
The highly controversial issue of tracing the first sender has been opposed by the instant messaging service WhatsApp, and the matter is sub judice. The crux of the issue is that intermediaries not adhering to the Rules would lose the safe harbour protection and could be prosecuted under relevant laws.
India's IT Rules Didn't Go Down Well With Twitter
Twitter and the government of India crossed swords in the past when the Rules came into effect. The platform also refused to comply with an order to take down accounts and posts during the farmers’ agitation last year, which the government claimed were spreading misinformation. Twitter had claimed that the orders were not in line with Indian laws.
On being pressurised in a public spat that has grown uglier over time, Twitter took down multiple tweets and accounts that were critical of the government. Twitter had also publicly expressed concern about the freedom of expression in the country after the platform had put a ‘Manipulated Media’ label on a tweet by a leader of the ruling party. On numerous occasions, ruling party ministers have spoken about the need to make social media intermediaries and the Big Tech accountable to the jurisdictions they operate in. Ruling party members have also promoted indigenous alternatives to Twitter, such as Koo and Tooter. As if things couldn’t get any worse, in walks Elon Musk with his utopian ideals of 'absolute' freedom of speech.
The question that we will need answered over the coming days is how Twitter, under a new management, would respond to the government’s attempt to deal with free speech.
Given Musk’s ideological bent, it is quite likely that the company may refuse to moderate online conversations. Also, in the critical matter of controlling hate speech, how the company would act on user complaints is another important issue. Freedom of speech might come in direct opposition to existing legislation and rules, and that might have a far-reaching impact on the platform’s ability to function in India.
One only hopes that the ‘digital townhall’ that Twitter has become remains a medium for users to express themselves freely without any misuse or abuse of the platform itself.
(Subimal Bhattacharjee is a commentator on cyber and security issues around northeast India. He can be reached @subimal on Twitter. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)