Big Tech

Free speech is in trouble if it depends on Twitter

Yikes. The sound of Elon Musk approaching with $44 billion jangling in his pockets has sent parts of the Twitterati scattering like springboks disturbed by a lion's roar. The growing likelihood of a Musk takeover, if a Guardian newspaper report is to be trusted, has triggered "a wave of account deletions by left-leaning users." Those on the right of the political spectrum seem to have piled in, though. If Twitter is a digital town square, it's one whose visitors increasingly share the same views.

This was a likely scenario ever since a Twitter takeover by the billionaire founder of Tesla and SpaceX became even a remote possibility. Pity, in a way, because the world could use a proper free-speech platform, the very thing Musk says he wants to create. Twitter's left-leaning diaspora either doesn't like that idea or doesn't trust Musk to deliver it. Nor should they trust him, necessarily.

It is harder to sympathize with people who have stormed off because they do not want to hear opposing voices. Their justification is typically that social media should not be a platform for discriminatory language, inciting violence or spreading "hate speech." But countries already have laws that cover discrimination and incitement to violence, and these cannot simply be disregarded by Musk. As for "hate speech," the term itself has been abused to mean just about anything that might cause offence. Laws that stop people from even risking offence would inevitably harm the exchange and development of ideas.

One of the best examples comes from transgender politics. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter children's books, has waded into the dispute about using "woman" to mean biological females specifically. She, and billions more, do not see that as controversial. But it so offends a part of the transgender community there have been calls for Rowling to be "cancelled" – essentially cast out of Twitter and ostracized more widely. This modern-day excommunication, of course, saves the trouble of debating a contentious topic.

Unfortunately, it is not just the fringes that have tired of it. Twitter's attention-deficit format is more suited to sounding off and hurling insults than it is to intelligent discourse. Many of Musk's outbursts do not read like the words of a bright spark who builds rockets and designs computer software. Such a spiteful place has Twitter become that users have clumped together like pack animals, looking for safety amid their own kind. Some are now congregating around Musk while others flee. There is less species diversity altogether.

A less divisive character might be able to save Twitter, but it seems unlikely, and that person is certainly not Musk. Regardless, allowing a company owner to set the rules for what he is promoting as the free-speech platform of the future creates a clear conflict of interest. Musk has an obvious financial incentive to use Twitter as a no-cost advertising tool for his other businesses, or simply to advance causes that suit him. For all his talk of free speech, he also appears to have blocked some users in the past.

Imaginary users

Should anyone be this worked up about a service most people never use? It's a fair point. Results published this week show Twitter finished March with only 229 million regular users (what it calls monetizable daily active usage), a figure equal to less than 3% of the world's population. Moreover, some 1.9 million have disappeared from last year's total due to accounting errors. This is the same company that paid $765.7 million in legal fees last year to settle charges it misled investors about its growth prospects. You might think executives would be more careful, especially considering Twitter booked a $221.4 million loss for 2021.

Its loss for the first quarter of 2022 came to about $127.8 million, despite a 16% increase in revenues, to $1.2 billion. Management decided to forego the customary earnings call this time round, citing Musk's bid as the reason, but costs were up sharply in all areas. If Musk fails to win over the mainstream after buying Twitter, there is little chance it will become the digital town square he claims to relish.

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The question then is whether regulatory oversight would really matter – or at least matter so much. Nobody worries about the barroom bigots talking among themselves because nobody pays them much attention. The danger is that a powerful host overhears and decides to intervene. Parler, a Twitter equivalent popular among supporters of Donald Trump, was last year booted off Amazon's cloud-computing service for airing comments deemed to be inciting violence. That should not have been for the democratically unaccountable Amazon to decide, especially given its cloud-computing dominance.

Musk's town square analogy is flawed and likely to remain so. The town squares of old Europe were cross sections of society, where people could usually tolerate occupying the same public space as their opposites, even engage them in discussion, and the occasional fight would break out. Twitter is a Stalingrad of routine sniping, a place where speaking up is perilous and cordiality can be guaranteed only among users in identical uniforms. It will probably get worse.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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