“A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with a West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”
Fast forward just one year and we are here discussing the $44 billion bid to buy Twitter from Elon Musk. These are the very words billionaire Musk tweeted in response to the suspension of former US President Donald Trump on Twitter, following the Capital Hill riots. Words come back to bite it would seem.
With weary spectators of this monumental purchase worried about Musk’s perception of free speech is one in which hate speech, libel and extremism are seen as by-the-by of a functioning democracy, the question ultimately becomes: how now are we supposed to protect people from online harm?
For once, I am more than happy to praise the Johnson administration here in the UK. Way before recent talks about Musk’s purchase rose to the forefront of the global conversion, the UK government was well underway with passing The Online Safety Bill.
Although it is still going through the legislative process, the new regulations which will be brought into effect will include restrictions and limitations on illegal and harmful content. Part of these reforms is to make social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok responsible for the content posted on their respective platforms.
If these companies are deemed to be acting in a laissez-faire manner regarding harmful content, OFCOM will have the power to fine them up to 10% of their total annual global turnover.
Over in the EU, legislators are also underway with creating an online bill of rights of sorts that will ensure “a safe, secure and fair online environment where fundamental rights are protected”. There is also a growing number of people in the US who are advocating for much stricter online safety protections, particularly in regards to shielding citizens from harmful and hateful content.
Although we shall wait and see just how far these restrictions can go when taking the First Amendment, which protects a citizen’s right to free speech, into account.
All of this should, I hope, give some reassurances to those who are concerned with Musk’s Twitter takeover. Despite his potential to create a toxic and hateful environment dominated by utterly deplorable people, such as Katie Hopkins and Alex Jones, yet again.
Having said this, it is already highly evident that this news has only made the so-called Culture Wars far worse than they were just a fortnight ago. Twitter has acknowledged that there has been a fluctuation in those deactivating their accounts.
Whilst at the same time, some prominent right and far-right public figures have seen their following grow significantly. It would seem that the supposed “town square” of free speech Musk aims to create has actually created yet another space where the left and the right refuse to engage with each other.
Playing devil’s advocate for a second though, maybe this is all a bit of an overreaction? Musk has already somewhat backtracked on his all-encompassing definition of free speech by stating that he will adhere to whatever definition of “free speech” a country accepts as its own.
He has claimed to have every intention to stick very much within the law. Perhaps then the UK’s upcoming Online Safety bill, as well as the work being done within the EU, and potentially the US, means the more sinister side of Musk’s free speech will be curtailed after all. This wouldn’t be the first time Elon Musk has stepped back into the shadows after making a bold – and naïve – comment.
The internet was quick to point out that Musk never donated a single dollar to the UN’s World Food Programme’s plea to billionaires to save 42 million people from famine. Instead, he confronted them by asking for a breakdown (now provided on their website) of exactly how the 6.6 billion dollars would be used. Maybe then this Poundland Tony Stark will turn out to be all talk and no action.
Even though Musk’s bid for Twitter has been put forward and is being discussed as if it has been finalised, it has not. There is every chance that Musk will never get his hands on Twitter.
If his bid does go through though, our only hope is that elected officials take a stance to protect their citizens online. Be it through legislation such as the aforementioned Online Safety Bill, or through the introduction of some online human rights the EU seem to be veering towards.
After all, they are elected to do this. And with Musk’s supposed love for pure democracy, who would he be to tell them they are wrong to do so?