Elon Musk doesn’t know what it takes to make a digital town square
It was in 2009 when the power of Twitter really became evident. The site became a crucial tool for global activists after some Iranians tweeted during a media blackout. Later movements, including the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the Movement for Black Lives, relied on Twitter to disseminate information and gain supporters. If Elon Musk, the new platform’s official “Chief Twit”, sticks to his stated plans for overhauling a series platform policies, then these users–arguably the people who made Twitter what it has become–could be at greatest risk.
For one thing, the company has long resisted censorship demands from authoritarian countries that don’t comport with human rights standards. But Musk’s idea of following local laws as guidance for what’s allowed on Twitter–he has said it should “hew close to the laws of countries in which Twitter operates“–could mean that the company will begin complying with censorship policies and demands for user data that it has previously withstood.
For example, Qatar–whose government is one of Musk’s financial backers–has a law that threatens imprisonment or fines to “anyone who broadcasts, publishes, or republishes false or biased rumors, statements, or news, or inflammatory propaganda, domestically or abroad, with the intent to harm national interests, stir up public opinion, or infringe on the social system or the public system of the state.” The potential abuses of this law are myriad.
This, though, is just one possibility in the era of Musk, which is just beginning. Many users are worried that the billionaire’s purchase will lead to the site’s decline after years of slow improvements.
These fears are not unfounded. While much of Musk’s actions are a mystery, he has made it clear that he will make major policy changes under his leadership. This could include a loosening of the platform’s speech rules, and a user authentication requirement that would limit the users’ ability to remain anonymous. He also made a few pithy, sometimes contradictory statements regarding how he believes the site should moderate its content–among them that Twitter should and would remove any speech that is illegal.
There are already moves we don’t need to guess about. While Musk recently walked back claims that he planned to lay off one-third of the company’s workforce, it was reported late on Thursday that top executives had been fired and “hastily escorted” from the company’s headquarters. This included Vijaya Gadde, the company’s head of legal policy, trust, and safety, whom Musk had antagonized in an April tweet.
Gadde’s tenure was not without controversy. However, the legal team made significant policy steps under her leadership, many of them aimed at protecting the most vulnerable users. Twitter pushed back at attempts by US courts to unmask anonymous users; cracked down on botnets and other influence operations; worked with the government of New Zealand to develop tools to facilitate independent research on the impacts of user interactions with algorithmic systems; banned political ads in the run-up to the 2020 US elections; and hired researchers to study the health of discourse on the site.
For many of Twitter’s vulnerable users, these changes represented great strides from its early days as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” where just about anything–including terrorist content, harassment, and hate speech–could be found. But Musk has stated that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” While he’s recently tempered earlier statements by saying that he won’t turn Twitter into a “free-for-all hellscape,” it seems pretty clear that the new chief intends to roll back some of Twitter’s rules.
Musk also stated that he would reduce Twitter’s efforts to combat mis-information and disinformation. This would be a mistake. Twitter has carefully designed policies and tools that allow free speech and discourage the spread of false information. This includes prompts that encourage users read what they are sharing and labels that provide context for misinformation. These tools are crucial to ensure that Twitter remains a place for civic engagement, especially with major elections in dozens of countries within the next two years.
And perhaps most troubling for many of the activists who rely on the platform’s anonymity protections, Musk’s plans to require user authentication could mean an end to the freedom and security they’ve come to rely on. Users who have opinions or identities not aligned with the power elite need anonymity and pseudonymity. Even if Musk allows pseudonyms to continue, requiring users give personal information could make them more vulnerable to data theft by their governments.
Of course, not all ideas of Musk’s are bad. He has promised to encrypt direct messages. This is something digital rights advocates have been asking for for years. It would allow Twitter users to communicate more securely without leaving the platform. He also stated that his goal was to give users more control over what they see in their feeds. This could allow for greater freedom of expression in areas where Twitter’s moderation has gone too far.
Musk says he acquired 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.” He isn’t wrong about that, but he is wrong about how to get there. Instead of rushing to make a statement, I hope Musk will listen to experts as well as the site’s most vulnerable users. This will help them better understand the challenges they face and the complexities involved in moderating content on a site which can be host to a world leader’s tantrum and a movement for freedom.
Jillian C. York is a writer and activist whose work examines the impact of technology on our societal and cultural values. Based in Berlin, she is the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a fellow at the Center for Internet & Human Rights at the European University Viadrina, a visiting professor at the College of Europe Natolin, and the author of Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism (Verso 2021).
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.