Elon stated in a note to advertisers that he purchased 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.” The note continues, “…there is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society."
Since Elon announced his intention to buy Twitter, commentators have raised a number of concerns about the transaction. Now that the deal is complete, it is important to consider some of the concerns that have arisen for us in India as a result of Elon's acquisition of Twitter.
These concerns are based on two themes: Elon's stance as an absolutist free-speech advocate, and the executive decisions made at Twitter since he purchased the company.
Does Elon’s Idea of Free Speech Enable Online Hate?
Elon asserts Twitter should be a free space where “…Twitter should be even-handed, favoring neither side [of the political left or right]”. This appears to be in reference to the perception that right-wing conversations are not tolerated on Twitter. This, of course, is debatable given that Twitter, like other social media platforms, is obligated to apply its rules consistently.
In the past, Elon has made it clear how he feels about Twitter. He shared a meme aimed at Twitter's former head of legal, trust, and safety. The meme in question appears to be aimed at the senior executive, who was in charge of leading the teams at Twitter that make content moderation decisions.
This particular instance was particularly distasteful, and it resulted in additional abuse directed at the senior executive in question (Vijaya Gadde, who has been reportedly fired by Elon). In other instances, Elon has expressed his views on reversing previous Twitter decisions, such as the permanent ban on Donald Trump, which he called a "mistake."
Twitter’s Content Moderation Plan Under Musk Is Skewed
Several experts have stated that Elon's proposals to change things at Twitter were not just challenging but also deeply concerning due to the risks that could result from those changes. Consider Elon's recent suggestion that Twitter users choose which version of the platform they want. He suggested that “…much as it would be for a movie maturity rating”, and that “the rating of the tweet itself could be self-selected, then modified by user feedback.”
Anyone who follows content moderation even remotely understands how impractical this suggestion is, given the legal obligations that social media platforms like Twitter are required to follow in jurisdictions all over the world. We should also mention that Twitter is required to enforce its own rules which require the company to remove content that endangers the well-being and safety of its users.
We have recently seen the dangers that arise when social media platforms do not effectively moderate content. Toxic hate speech on Facebook has been linked to the genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. In these circumstances, it's difficult to understand how a platform like Twitter can choose to ignore the situation and let users choose which version of Twitter they want to use.
Elon appears to have finally begun to comprehend the enormous challenges that Twitter faces since his acquisition of the company. He has since made it clear that “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”
He also clarified that Twitter's content moderation policies have not changed. Any policy changes, including decisions to reinstate restricted Twitter accounts, will now be made by a "content moderation council" that Twitter plans to establish. This appears to be consistent with Meta's (formerly Facebook's) decision to establish the Oversight Board, an independent oversight mechanism that examines critical content policy issues that Facebook and Instagram face.
Will Twitter India Turn Liberal or Libelous?
While Elon has stated that the "...platform must be warm and welcome to all," the decisions Elon has made since acquiring Twitter make it difficult to determine whether he truly believes what he has said. According to a recent Washington Post article, "Layoffs at the company are expected to be broad" following the acquisition, and one of the first targets of the layoff are likely to be staff members part of teams that oversee critical content policy issues.
It's unclear how Elon intends to make the platform a safe space for its users if the employees in charge of ensuring that, are fired in the first place.
From an Indian perspective, one major concern is whether Twitter will continue to resist the Indian government's efforts to restrict online speech. We are aware that Twitter has filed a lawsuit against the Indian government in a judicial court over its content-takedown orders, and that the trial is still ongoing.
It remains to be seen whether Twitter will continue to sue the Indian government, given that Elon has stated that Twitter will follow "...the laws of the land." This case raises an appropriate question for Elon and his new Twitter team: what would Twitter do when the laws of the land already limit freedom of expression?
Perhaps Munawar Faruqi's response to Elon's tweet, "Comedy is now legal on Twitter," makes sense now. “Pakka? "Bhai rehne, tum nahi aaoge bail karane..." (Loosely translated as: Are you certain? It's okay, bro; you won’t be here to bail me out of jail).
(Jade Lyngdoh is a Constitutional Law (honours) candidate at National Law University, Jodhpur, where he has been a Meta India Tech Scholar (2021-22).