By wanting to “liberate” the expression on Twitter, Elon Musk is in vain pursuing an outdated utopia

After more than six months of adventures that left doubts hanging over the outcome of this process until the last moment, Elon Musk took control of Twitter on October 27. Do the jolts and reversals that characterized the acquisition phase of the platform foreshadow what will be the daily life of the company from now on?

As he has constantly repeated, the new owner of the premises intends to “restore” freedom of expression on the platform: he reiterated it as soon as he took control, in a tweet proclaiming that “the bird is free”.

However, he already realizes that his room for maneuver in this area is, in fact, very limited.

Social network and moderation are inseparable

If it is implemented as desired by the man who, on D-Day, described himself as “Chief Twit” on his Twitter profile, this non-interventionist policy would in fact not be fundamentally new for the platform: it would rather be of a return to basics, going back to a time when the company of the blue bird, in the naivety and idealism of its young years, described itself as ” the pro-free speech wing, within the free speech party “.

However, if Twitter has gradually moved away from this initial posture, it is precisely because it was not tenable.

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In his work Custodians of the Internet, which is a reference in the field, the researcher Tarleton Gillespie does not hesitate to present moderation as consubstantial (“essential, constitutional, definitional”) with digital platforms: it would therefore be misunderstanding their very nature to claim to reduce this activity in its simplest form. Member of the Trust and Safety Council (Trust and Security Council) of Twitter, the jurist Danielle Citron did not express anything else when she questioned Elon Musk on this subject, on the platform itself.

The experience confirms the yawning gap between the promises of expression without safeguards put forward by certain platforms in their infancy and the practices that end up taking shape on them. Created in recent years, the Parler, Gettr and Truth Social platforms were immediately presented as a refuge for freedom of expression. In fact, they quickly converted to intensive filtering of the content published by their users, for example with regard to posts denouncing the invasion of the Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump on January 6, 2021. In addition, these decisions of withdrawal are often taken on the basis of non-transparent criteria, since their conditions of use are sometimes extremely succinct or are limited to generic formulations on this point.

Even the richest man in the world is subject to economic constraints

On the very day of the takeover, the new boss wanted to reassure advertisers that the platform would not become “a hell where everything is permitted”, in fact acknowledging the need for moderation.

In fact, it cannot ignore the economic imperative of preserving the attractiveness of this digital environment for the average user, and therefore for companies wishing to deploy their advertising efforts there. Everything but a detail for a company which, for the time being, derives 90% of its revenue from advertising.

Aware of the strength of this means of pressure, more than fifty NGOs recently published an open letter addressed to the twenty companies that invest the most in advertising on Twitter, urging them to demand that “basic practices of moderation already in effect on the platform”. Several companies have already announced that they will suspend their marketing expenses on the social network. Although Musk sought reassurance that existing rules and practices remain for now still in place, he also insisted on provisional character of this situation.

Other economic reasons are likely to substantially reduce the multi-billionaire’s room for manoeuvre. The vast majority of his fortune is made up of Tesla shares, which have lost more than a third of their value since he announced his intention to acquire the social network. Furthermore, given this context and the volumes involved, Musk cannot massively convert these assets into cash without aggravating this downward trend. It therefore had to borrow $13 billion from banks, putting it under pressure to generate a return on investment, even though the business has only been profitable twice in the past decade. .

This configuration puts Musk at odds with his own statements last April, when he claimed that the future acquisition of Twitter was “absolutely not” an economic question. The visible haste in which nearly half of the employees were fired, as well as the sudden sale of the blue brands of verified accounts, seem on the contrary to reveal that the new CEO is feeling the pressure of profitability, which hardly seems compatible with a marked decline in content moderation, which would lead to a shrinking of its user base and advertising revenue.

Twitter takeover finalized, Elon Musk fires Euronews executives, October 28, 2022.

Another part of its financing plan is based, to the tune of 7 billion dollars, on contributions from around twenty partner investors, who also have expectations in terms of profitability. Some of those funds depend on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are unlikely to share Musk’s views on free speech.

Finally, the multiple industrial interests of Musk, sources of income as well as personal prestige, could be used by various governments as so many means of pressure so that the head of the company takes decisions in the desired direction, including concerning the contents available on what now constitutes “his” platform. Would Musk be able to not respond to demands from Beijing when China is the second market for Tesla, which has just opened a giant factory in Shanghai? Even if Twitter is not authorized in China, the Xi Jinping government could try to require the removal of certain content deemed inappropriate, as long as it is available on the platform in the rest of the world.

Content moderation: a subject that is more regulated… and politicized

Ironically, the process of Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and that of the adoption of the “Digital Services Act” (DSA), European legislation which will regulate the digital sector in an unprecedented way, have twice passed key stages of synchronized way: in April, the announcement of the project to buy the platform by the billionaire had coincided, within two days, with the conclusion of a political agreement between Community institutions on this text.

Read more: The Digital Services Act, a brake on Elon Musk’s ambitions with Twitter in Europe?

Six months later, the acquisition became effective at the same time as the legislative text was published in the Official Journal. Although the result of chance, this coincidence has the merit of emphasizing that limiting moderation on Twitter to the strict minimum is no longer an option in the European context. The European Commissioner in charge of the internal market Thierry Breton also wished to remind Elon Musk of this, spinning the metaphor that he had initiated a little earlier.

In the United States, content moderation is not subject to federal regulation, except for special cases related to copyright and child pornography. However, the famous “Section 230” of the Communication Decency Act, which guarantees platforms a very wide margin of maneuver in this area, is at the center of legislative debates and could be reformed in the medium term in a more restrictive direction.

In the US context, Musk is already exposed to the effects produced by the high degree of politicization of online moderation: the Democrats are pushing for greater intervention by the platforms on content, unlike the Republicans who denounce a form of “censorship”. Consequently, the most emblematic decisions in this field are systematically interpreted from a partisan angle. Since Musk is now the sole owner of Twitter and has fired the entire previous management team, these same decisions are also seen as his own.

Although he never sought to be perceived as a neutral actor – he now does little mystery of his conservative leanings – the new captain has a lot to lose from this explosive combination of politicization and personalization.

To escape this uncomfortable status, he announced the future creation of a ” Content moderation advice “: if he remained extremely vague on this subject, there is no doubt that he seeks by this means to avoid finding himself at the center of the controversies which do not fail to arise as soon as a decision is taken in this area, whether in one direction or another.

In this case, this new body very strongly inspired by Meta’s “Oversight Board” will, once created, have to deliberate to confirm or cancel the choice made by Twitter in January 2020 of indefinitely suspend Donald Trump’s account.

In a similar vein, Musk met online on May 1er November with civil rights organizations, and assured them that any decision about Trump’s possible reinstatement on the platform will necessarily have to be made after a ” clear process “. He also hinted that the future Council will include members of these specialized NGOs against online hate.

This strategy of distancing sensitive decisions, which is far from new in the world of social networks, reveals that Musk is discovering the implications of his takeover. These first steps, which seriously undermine the scope of his initial commitments, foreshadow a governance of Twitter that will be characterized by intractable tensions between Musk’s libertarian aspirations and the practical constraints to which any social network platform is now exposed.

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