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Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter approved

By | Published on Tuesday 26 April 2022


Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter has got board approval, and what could possibly go wrong with that?

The billionaire revealed he’d bought a 9.1% stake in the social media firm earlier this month before declaring his interest in taking complete ownership of the company. Twitter’s board was initially resistant to that proposal, but has now backed Musk’s $44 billion takeover package.

Ever since Musk confirmed that initial share purchase, there has been plenty of speculation about what the often out-spoken entrepreneur wants to do with a social network that continues to be both influential and controversial, despite never achieving the scale of most of its rival social media and user-generated content platforms.

Along the way, he’s given a few hints about the logistical and strategic changes he might make once completely in control of Twitter, with the key theme being ‘it’s all about the free speech, baby!’ And, indeed, that’s what he led with in a statement that accompanied confirmation of his takeover bid getting board approval.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”, he said.

“I also want to make Twitter better than ever”, he went on, “by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it”.

Of course, while Musk is correct that free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, the right to freedom of expression is still a restricted right.

The laws of defamation, privacy and copyright all restrict free speech to an extent. Most media – even those with an overt political agenda – have traditionally had policies in place that insist editors restrict the flow of lies, bullshit and conspiracy theories. Pub landlords can always kick obnoxious shouty cunts off their premises. And if you stand at someone’s front door yelling a string of offensive and threatening statements through the letter box, at the very least the local police will move you on.

It’s no secret that social media platforms have struggled to deal with the complexities of regulating free speech online – never entirely sure what to do about the stack of controversial, unlawful, abusive and misleading content that the wonderful human race posts each and every day.

Certainly, the platforms have proven reluctant to become the judges, editors, landlords and police of the internet. But – as the years have gone by – all the them have had to perform each of those tasks in some way.

Law-makers in multiple jurisdictions are also in the process of increasing the legal responsibilities of the platforms in this domain, with the European Union’s Digital Services Act – which will do just that – finalised last week.

However – under pressure from users, advertisers and investors – plenty of platforms have already introduced a version of the measures law-makers are now making mandatory, though the new laws might force those voluntary measures to be slightly more transparent and consistent.

Either way, measures of that kind – whether introduced to fulfil legal obligations or to placate nervous advertisers – are always controversial.

Half the world thinks they are token gesture and ineffective, and don’t really do anything to combat the racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, threats, abuse, bullshit conspiracy theories and dangerous political propaganda that floods the social networks every day. The other half thinks they are an undemocratic assault on free speech.

And everyone is convinced that the social media content policies – and the algorithms and filters that enforce them – are totally skewed against their personal political opinions.

So, it’s tricky. Musk is right that more can be done and should be done to balance the need to tackle harmful content with the need to protect and promote free speech. Part of that is about developing more transparent approaches to content moderation, something law-makers want and Musk seemingly supports too. But a lot of it is about achieving nuance at scale. And nuance isn’t necessarily the new Twitter owner’s particular area of expertise.

Interesting times though. Of course, for the music industry, as big a concern as Twitter’s content moderation policies is its total lack of music licences and unhelpful systems for dealing with copyright infringement on the platform. It remains to be seen if Twitter’s position on all that shifts too once it’s under new private ownership.