Elon Musk’s Twitter experiment could be a success – even if it fails

Jovan Kurbalija, Executive Director of DiploFoundation and Head of the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP)

Elon Musk could save social media whether he succeeds or fails in making Twitter an open space for responsible free speech. It is an enormous task, much more complex than Musk’s previous business successes with Tesla and SpaceX.

By trying to fix Twitter, he is fostering deeper debates on many wicked policy issues, from upholding freedom of expression and tackling the risks of misinformation to policing the truth and the overall responsibility of platforms for the content they host.

If Musk succeeds …

… which is not likely, he will manage to solve one of the most complicated policy issues of our time. He would succeed in building an open space for discussion while containing hate speech, trolling, and other misuses of platforms.

He hinted that his first step would be to stop the anonymity of contributions. Critics say that this policy could pose a threat to many people, especially those under authoritarian regimes.

In addition to anonymity, Musk will also have to deal with the question of banning people from Twitter or any social media. He also indicated that he would be against lifetime banning, which would allow reinstating the account of the former US President Trump (although Trump said he is not interested) and possibly other similar ramifications.

Making a distinction between banning users and banning specific Tweets will be a crucial policy strategy decision. Musk will also have to make Twitter a viable business operation to protect his investment of US$44 billion.

He recently indicated that commercial and government users might be charged a slight cost for using the platform, while casual users would continue to use the service for free. Establishing a more transparent business model, including its service payment model, would bring more clarity and avoid a situation where users pay for free platform use with their data.

If Musk fails …

… which is more likely, he will still catalyse an increase in the clarity of discussion on the regulation of platforms. The current situation in which social platforms arbitrate public debate by allowing their version of the truth is not viable.

In a way, tech platforms are becoming an Orwellian ministry of truth without having any credible legitimacy to moderate such delicate societal issues. Assigning such power to tech platforms not only goes against the first amendment of the US constitution but also against the visceral vibrancy of modern society, which expects to speak out loud (or read on Twitter).

Tech platforms assumed this unique position via their bible: Section 230 of the Communications Defamation Act from 1996, which shields them from any responsibility for the content they provide. It was a reasonable law that helped the early development of the internet. But, with the power that platforms have acquired meanwhile, this immunity opens major political and ethical issues about their influence on public debates.

The main question we need to address is: Whether such an important societal function as arbitrating freedom of information should be the responsibility of private companies or public institutions such as governments, courts, and parliaments? So far, the public debate, especially in Europe, has shifted toward public institutions, as they have much more legitimacy than private companies. Governments are (theoretically) more accountable to the public. They also tend to be more transparent than private companies.

Whatever happens with Musk’s Twitter reform, his actions will significantly advance discussions on the roles and responsibilities of tech platforms in shaping online public spaces.

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