On April 25, Twitter’s board of directors unanimously accepted billionaire Elon Musk’s offer to purchase the social media platform for $44 billion, effectively buying out the company’s shareholders and taking the corporation private. Many of Twitter’s 330 million regular users expressed concern about how Musk would change the platform.
Once the deal is finalized and Musk takes over Twitter, the company will be controlled by the world’s richest person, who’s been a critic of the platform — while using it in legally questionable ways with sensitive posts about his Tesla car company’s stock.
Musk calls himself a free speech absolutist and says he wants to operate Twitter as a politically neutral town square. But, while Musk says he opposes censorship, critics are concerned that he’ll open the floodgates of hate speech, bullying and threats, while silencing views he disagrees with, given that he’s often blocked critics from his personal account.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Nora Benavidez, senior counsel and director of Digital Justice and Civil Rights at FreePress.net, who takes a critical look at Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, and talks about what a coalition of groups are doing to address the major failings of social media.
NORA BENAVIDEZ: Well, I hold two different feelings. You know, the first is just the pragmatist in me that the deal isn’t done. And Musk has a great track record of not doing what he says he’ll do. Whether it is his promise that self-driving cars will come out in six months or any number of other promises that he has made over his career, you know, he wanted to be called the techno king for Tesla. He has a certain flair for the dramatic. And his taking up so much oxygen has really meant that we get to focus on little else.
But the other part of me, you know, is very worried. I think that, you know, any user on Twitter, anyone who thinks about using the Internet and social media as a gateway to connect, has no promise from Musk that he will actually be an accountable steward for the platform.
He has a history of shutting people down, particularly when he doesn’t like what they say. And so his new sort of mantra that he wants to make Twitter a free speech platform rings very hollow. You know, he has shut down people at Tesla on earnings phone calls when he finds them boring, despite their actually needing capital requirements. He disparages and rallies his bullies online to attack reporters when they critique him.
And he frankly just doesn’t adhere to the values of an open square.
SCOTT HARRIS: Musk touts himself to be a free speech absolutist. So there’s fears Twitter will once again be used as a platform to spread dangerous disinformation and calls for violence. And I wonder how you view what Musk can do, given the fact that there are certain constraints, including the European Union and the United Kingdom’s vow that they will maintain their laws that social media must comply with content moderation that, at least rhetorically, Elon Musk seems to reject.
NORA BENAVIDEZ: You know, the EU has been advancing policies of late to push for stronger interventions from government to solve the problems we know are occurring on social media platforms. That includes what you’ve mentioned: dangerous disinformation, hate online calls for violence and extremism. There’s a pretty long list of these harms that have offline consequences. I would frankly say that Twitter has these issues with or without Musk.
SCOTT HARRIS: Well, Nora, tell our listeners about the campaign launched by the Change the Terms Coalition and the title of the campaign, this Fix the Feed.
NORA BENAVIDEZ: Fix the Feed. Yeah, we are a group of over 60 civil rights organizations, tech justice, consumer advocacy organizations all over the country. And we are working to pressure social media companies to do better. You know, if we take a step back, this 2022 year we are going to see not just the U.S. midterms. We’re going to see 36 determinative elections around the world that will shape a variety of nations.
And frankly, most of us use social media as our gateway to information about everything about our neighbors, about our neighborhood about democracy, about issues. And so we feel like this is such a powerful moment to say you are the reason that people turn to certain information. Social media companies, Do better. And we’re calling on companies to do three things.
One is fix their algorithms to stop promoting the worst stuff. Two, is to protect people equally around the world, not just anecdotally. Make sure that in the U.S. midterm election there is a brief moment or month of protection. But no matter what language you speak, you should be able to have the same kind of moderation that someone in English has.
And then finally we’re saying, show us the receipts, be more transparent. Let us researchers and experts and civil society understand how your companies are moderating what your business models are. Open up what we call the black box. And so together, all of this is us saying, “You know what, you need to fix your feed. Do better, step up.”
This is a moment where the entire world’s democracies hang in the balance.
Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Nora Benavidez (13:43) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.