Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk believes that it is important to have an “inclusive arena for free speech”. The Tesla and SpaceX boss told TEDx’s Chris Anderson, “It’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech. Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square.” He added that it is imperative “people have both the reality and the perception that they’re able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
He added, “And so one of the things that I believe Twitter should do is open-source the algorithm and make any changes to people’s tweets, if they’re emphasised or de-emphasised, that action should be made apparent so anyone can see that action has been taken.” Musk said this would be key to avoiding “behind-the-scenes manipulation, either algorithmically or manually.”
This, however, is not the first time that Musk has spoken about the de-facto bias of Twitter. The business mogul said in a tweet on March 24, “I’m worried about de facto bias in 'the Twitter algorithm' having a major effect on public discourse. How do we know what’s really happening?”
Twitter’s relationship with free speech
But the moot question does remain: does Twitter have a problem with free speech?
Visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Shashidhar KJ points out that for social media platforms, things are not that easy and the rules of free speech apply selectively. He told Business Today, “Social media platforms are beginning to take on the role of speech. It’s difficult for the government to regulate them and also for the company.”
He also said that Twitter’s application of rules depends on four factors: trying to keep their business interests, allowing all kinds of speech on its platform, political nuances of a particular geography and region and being mindful of the laws and regulations of the land.
He added that platforms like Twitter are caught between a rock and a hard place as it is following the government rules across different geographies on the one hand and catering to its own policies on the other.
Shashidhar points out how social media companies began cracking down on far-right social media handles after the January 6 Capitol riots, while adding they failed to replicate the same in India due to the extremely varied political nuances of the subcontinent.
Moreover, as he points out, calling Twitter a 'town square' -- which Musk did -- is fundamentally incorrect as it resembles more a private park where people walk and they say things as they have the right to speak but they don’t have the right to enforce someone to listen.
“As much as you say it is a town square, it is a privately-owned park. There are a whole lot of rules and companies can do a lot of things,” he says.
In stark contrast to Shashidhar, the Technical Research Manager at Stanford Internet Observatory Renée DiResta told The Atlantic, “Opaque moderation decisions and reactive ad hoc policies have undermined the public trust; playing whack-a-mole with rumors or responding to propaganda with fact-checks seems to have led to more animus and entrenchment, not less.”
DiResta further states that Twitter has struggled to develop content-moderation rules that mitigate instances of fake news and misinformation while still keeping free speech intact implying that social networks become unmanageable when they grow past a certain size.
But there are extreme voices as well who say that Twitter as it exists today is more of a threat and needs a complete overhaul.
Jason Miller, CEO of the right-wing microblogging site Gettr, is one such voice. He recently told the NYT that Musk has made it crystal clear that Twitter needs a complete overhaul in order to be saved and that its leadership should be changed.
Miller noted, "Musk has made clear that in order to be saved, Twitter needs a wholesale teardown to the foundation, its leadership must be removed, and the politically discriminating ideologues running day to day operations must be replaced."
(With inputs from The Atlantic, New York Times)
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