On April 4, Tesla CEO Elon Musk disclosed to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission that he had bought a major stake in Twitter, making him the largest company shareholder. After tumultuous several weeks of board membership decisions, unsolicited purchase offers, and “poison pill” attempts, the Twitter board of directors voted unanimously to accept Musk’s $44bn offer to buy Twitter and take it private on April 25.
The decision is not final – it requires both regulatory sign-off and shareholder approval – but many are treating it as such. Already in the US, the decision has been met with celebration from the political right based on assumptions of what the policies of a Musk-owned Twitter would entail. Yet it is still not clear what those policies would be. Although Musk himself has not been shy about promulgating his vision for Twitter on Twitter itself, many of his statements have been contradictory.
For instance, Musk has repeatedly tweeted his support for freedom of speech, tweeting on April 26: “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law.” Therefore, he appears to draw the boundaries clearly: all lawful content should be permitted, and unlawful content should be removed. At the same time, however, Musk has also repeatedly voiced his hatred for cryptocurrency spam, tweeting on April 21 that “we will defeat the spam bots or die trying”, presumably referring to cryptocurrency spammers. These ideas all sound laudable to the average layperson – yet they are contradictory, as it is perfectly legal to disseminate content advertising the money-making potential of an amazing new cryptocurrency coin.
In the end, the vast bulk of moderated content does not consist of politically controversial subjects such as misinformation or hate speech – rather, it is spam, pornography, scams, and the like. It is doubtful Musk intends to defend the right of an individual to hawk diet pills online – yet that would be a consequence of his stated free speech policy. A Twitter in which everything lawful is permitted would quickly become a morass of fake Ray-Ban advertisements, pornography, and copy-pasted cryptocurrency spam, contradicting Musk’s own commitment.
Even officially “free-speech” platforms such as GETTR and Truth Social have permanently banned users for their choice of speech – although that did not stop GETTR from reportedly becoming overwhelmed by video game pornography and ISIL (ISIS) supporters that they struggled to remove. Spam, scams, and pornography are not the only areas in which the conclusions of free speech idealism contradict society’s expectations. A more serious example is the fact that it is generally legal in the US to express online support for ISIL and similar groups or link users to recruiting websites, so long as it does not cross over into material support or inciting an act of violence. There have been attempts to advocate for changing US laws to prevent this, but doing so would potentially be unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
The current aggressive social media takedowns of “pro-terrorist content” are not legally required. Although it is doubtful Musk will allow Twitter to become a haven for ISIL propaganda (despite the conclusions of his rhetoric), this example illustrates the complex nuances at play.
Of course, the US is only one nation out of almost 200, each with its own laws and regulations. Nazi symbols and Holocaust denial are both illegal in Germany (as well as Austria, Belgium, France, and other European nations). Russia has an illegalised speech that contradicts the Kremlin’s position on its invasion of Ukraine. In Turkey, it is a crime to “insult” the Turkish people, with recognition of the Armenian genocide sometimes prosecuted under that law. And under its National Security Law, China can prosecute protesters in Hong Kong for chanting slogans as basic as “Liberate Hong Kong”. Dealing with China may prove especially difficult for Musk, with Tesla’s factory in Shanghai serving as a potential point of leverage.
Twitter reported receiving 43,400 legal removal requests in the first half of 2021, of which it complied with only 54 percent. If Musk intends to aggressively remove content that violates regional laws – a possible interpretation of his existing statements – it could perversely lead to greater censorship in some countries.
What about the idea proposed by Musk to “authenticate all real humans”? Could that act as a shortcut to obtaining the benefits of a moderated community without actually needing to moderate? Stereotype holds that controversial speech such as spam, harassment, and misinformation come predominantly from fake accounts. Like most stereotypes, this is completely incorrect. Any American with a friend interested in multilevel marketing can attest that the use of real names does not prevent these acquaintances from spamming their personal network. Furthermore, the largest source of literal bots are likely self-compromised accounts in which real users effectively rent access to their account to spammers – an issue that authentication would not address. When South Korea enacted an online real name system from the 2000s until 2012, it only reduced online malicious comments by 0.9 percentage points (from a 13.9 percent base).
This real name policy also led to negative repercussions. Online databases of user identities formed a valuable target that led to repeated hacking attempts – most notably when a 2011 SK Communications hack saw the theft of personal data for 35 million users, more than half of South Korea’s population. And of course, real name requirements also have the potential to degrade freedom of speech, as pseudonymity and anonymity can be necessary to protect users who engage in controversial speech, users who face threats and harassment online, dissidents, and others.
Though Musk himself has tweeted his dislike for online “cancel culture”, his real name policy would likely lead to a growth in its occurrence as users would no longer be able to separate their controversial opinions from their public personas. Despite Musk’s intentions, real name requirements could in fact further degrade online free speech, as critics of those with controversial opinions would be able to more effectively enact a heckler’s veto. As such, it is far too early to conclude what policies Musk will promulgate at Twitter.
Like a politician elected on a platform of slashing taxes, increasing spending, and eliminating the national debt, Musk has publicly expressed popular goals that cannot be simultaneously enacted without a severe redefinition of their scope. Those contradictions also make it difficult to know what Musk will choose to prioritise when his goals inevitably conflict.
Will he restrict freedom of speech – despite his public promises – in order to root out crypto spam? Will he allow spammers, pornographers, and “terrorists” to overrun Twitter in pursuit of his free speech ideals?
Yet the same uncertainty can give us cautious optimism. In his time at Tesla, Musk has displayed mental agility and willingness to change plans when necessary – for instance when discarding his focus on automation in 2018 to meet production goals. This adaptiveness also means that it is difficult to predict what Musk will truly do before he does it himself.
Many scenarios are possible. For instance, the conflicting nature of Musk’s promises could force him and his supporters to reckon with the complex nuances of social media policy. Perhaps Musk would conduct a few minor changes (eg, returning Trump to the platform) and declare victory on free speech, leaving Twitter’s moderation largely untouched. Musk has a track record of overcoming conventional wisdom and surprising the experts after all. But with the importance of Twitter and social media to the modern world, any failures can also have severe effects.
Past failures of social media have led to mass lynchings in India, communal violence in Sri Lanka, genocide in Myanmar, and more. Musk himself has acknowledged some level of social media responsibility for the indirect effects of their decisions – on January 6, 2021, he tweeted a meme blaming Facebook for that day’s attack on the US Capitol.
It is also easy to imagine a scenario where Musk’s failure to achieve the impossible is blamed on the “deep company” and employee sabotage. If nothing else, Musk’s strong criticisms of Twitter employees may have poisoned his relationship with the experienced employees who would be crucial to actually root out the crypto spam he detests so much.
In the end, the nature of liberal free-market democracy relies on the free competition of ideas, in both the political and commercial marketplace. Although Musk’s promises are contradictory, societal progress relies on a willingness to challenge what is known and venture out into the realm of the unknown. Even if Musk fails, it is likely that he will at least have tried something new in the process – and thereby taught us something via his failures.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.