Info-tech

Is Elon Musk’s utopian promise of free speech good for Twitter?

Debangana Ghosh | | Updated on: Apr 21, 2022

Experts say that even in a free speech-based society, nothing is absolute

Entrepreneur Elon Musk has been batting for unpoliced freedom of speech on Twitter for nearly a month now, even as he has mounted a takeover bid.

The billionaire businessman has been scrutinising its moderation policies for quite some time, eventually shocking the Twitterati with an offer to buy out the platform for nearly $43 billion last week. While he plans to turn Twitter into a free-speech utopia, internet freedom experts and researchers believe that this is neither desirable, nor possible, given the influence of social media in today’s democracy and political narrative.

Experts said that the moment a social media company sets up an office in a country, it is bound to follow the rules governing that country. In the case of India, these platforms are bound by several policies including the new IT rules, which categorise most top social media platforms as intermediaries that have to monitor posts to filter hate speech, fake news and other problematic content.

“There’s always dystopia hidden within utopia. Even in a free speech-based society, nothing is absolute. Free speech is between you and the State, which means you should be allowed to publish your thoughts and ideas even if you are critical of the government and its policies. But free speech doesn’t mean you enter your neighbour’s house and start shouting at them. I agree with the importance of free speech but people often confuse it with whatever they want to think,” Srinivas Kodali, independent researcher and privacy rights activist told BusinessLine.

‘Business venture’

Kodali added, “I don’t think there’s any country where free speech is entirely unregulated. I don’t think Elon Musk himself has the free speech to write whatever he wants to on Twitter. The SEC has stopped him several times from doing that; he can’t reveal his business practices on Twitter without informing the shareholders of his company. Whatever Musk is trying to do has nothing to do with free speech, it’s more about how can he profit from it. It’s a business venture, not a philanthropic idea.”

A change in stance was noticed when Musk on Tuesday posted on Twitter sharing a more moderate view. He wrote, “A social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10 per cent on left and right are equally happy.”

 “Even social media platforms have their biases. It is important to note that these platforms operate within the boundaries of countries where certain things might be considered sensitive from a religious and cultural standpoint; that’s why each country has regulations on how these platforms will operate within their jurisdictions. For example, under intermediary guidelines in IT rules, if you try to control or influence content, you may stand to lose your intermediary status.” Rameesh Kailasam, CEO, IndiaTech.Org, told BusinessLine.

Concentration of ownership

There also remains the question of ownership and control of these platforms on which public discourse is held.

According to Kailasam, one cannot look at founders and think of ownership of social media platforms any more. Sometimes the faces which are shown are not necessarily the ones running the show.

In the case of Twitter, founder Jack Dorsey had no control; it is alleged that the staff and board together hold around 2 per cent together. It cannot be known if somebody behind them is involved unless one digs into their SEC filings. At Facebook too, Mark Zuckerberg has limited holdings of around 12.8 per cent.

“Most social media companies that have emerged from their start-up status, the boards or founders may not have major controlling stake but still may be perceivably calling the shots. Who owns what and how much of such organisations can be known only from their filings and not necessarily who optically runs them,” Kailasam said.

Published on April 20, 2022
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