Of absolutism and anarchy

Musk, an outspoken entrepreneur considers himself as a free speech absolutist, who believes that taking the company private is the only way it can live up to its full potential as a platform for free speech.
Of absolutism and anarchy
Elon Musk

Chennai: The big question has finally been laid to rest. The world’s richest man and Tesla boss Elon Musk will take over Twitter in a staggering $44 bn deal. The news regarding the potential acquisition of the publicly-held microblogging platform had been hogging headlines for a month now, with reports of Musk emerging as the biggest shareholder in the company that will be held privately, post the completion of the takeover. There is a lot to chew on, when one considers what’s at stake, what’s to gain, and importantly, what do we stand to lose.

Musk, an outspoken entrepreneur considers himself as a free speech absolutist, who believes that taking the company private is the only way it can live up to its full potential as a platform for free speech. Referring to the app as the ‘digital townsquare where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,’ Musk said he was looking forward to working with the company and its user base to unlock it.

As someone who aspires to have even his worst critics actively engaged on the platform, Musk’s takeover is being seen by many as a body blow to the idea of content moderation. He has pointed out in the past that he’d rather see Twitter bend more towards permitting individuals to express their viewpoints, rather than to moderate them, no matter what the ideology. This is pertinent when one considers extreme rhetoric, hate speech and misinformation campaigns that have now become a mainstay of the political narrative globally.

Human Rights Watch, a social watchdog, in its response said that freedom of speech is not an absolute right. The group emphasised that changes to Twitter’s policies, features and algorithms can have a disproportionate and sometimes devastating impact, which could even entail violence. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union had also highlighted the dangers of vesting so much power in the hands of just one individual. Today, the platform actively employs mechanisms to weed out violent and abusive content, through content moderation systems. If unshackling Twitter means allowing any individual to voice his or her perspective in public, irrespective of the damage it might do to vulnerable groups, including non-binary persons, women, or even immigrants and refugees, then the aspect of accountability gets thrown out.

It must be noted that accountability will be a big part of social media platforms going forth. The EU, which has stringent laws to protect the private data of an individual as well as one’s digital rights, has given the in-principal go-ahead for a landmark legislation last week. The Digital Services Act gives the 27-bloc Union more teeth in reining in the powers of social media companies, and safeguarding the interests of European users from hate speech, misinformation and harmful online content. The rules make tech companies more accountable for the content posted by their users, as well as the amplification of such content by the platform’s algorithms. In case of non-compliance, billion dollar fines await enterprises who choose to run afoul of the law.

These developments are taking place at a tumultuous time in history. On one hand, the world had just begun steadying itself from the effects of a pandemic, a mission that was jeopardised by unregulated anti-vaxx commentaries online. Post the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a barrage of political smear campaigns was seen on social media. India is also seeing an unprecedented level of extreme nationalism fuelled by IT cells working overtime to plant divisive time-bombs at precise intervals in cyberspace.

Undoubtedly, Musk has taken on a massive responsibility by acquiring a platform that has now become a mouthpiece for the world. Now it remains to be seen if he can put his money where his mouth is.

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