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Elon Musk and freedom of expression

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Elon Musk claims he wants to buy Twitter because he believes in its “potential as a platform for free expression around the planet”, which in his view would not have been fully exploited by those who manage the social network. As such, after buying 9.2 percent of the company's shares (becoming its largest shareholder), Musk last week offered all Twitter shareholders to buy their shares, in a $ 43 billion financial transaction. dollars. To prevent the purchase, the company's board of directors has approved some extraordinary rules that should limit the risks of a hostile takeover.

Musk is the richest person in the world and is best known for being the CEO of Tesla, his electric car company, and the private space company SpaceX. He has many fans and supporters with whom he maintains a rather direct relationship on Twitter, the social network he has repeatedly said he prefers to say how he thinks on various issues and interact with those who follow him.

Despite being a frequent user, Musk over time had criticized Twitter on several occasions, suggesting changes to some features and arguing that in some cases its algorithms were not transparent and limited the free expression of members of the social network. The criticisms had gradually become more frequent, so much so that some speculate that Musk was planning to leave Twitter to found an alternative service on which there would be practically no moderation.

Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy.

Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?

– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 25, 2022

Before buying 9.2 percent of the shares of Twitter, Musk had denied that he was interested in becoming a shareholder, just as he had ruled out taking ownership of the social network, a few days before submitting your purchase offer. Things then changed quickly, leading to the proposal to acquire Twitter and withdraw all of its shares from the stock market, making the company unlisted.

In the letter sent to Twitter to inform the company about the proposal and in the documentation to the US supervisory authorities, Musk had written that he wanted to proceed with the purchase to preserve freedom of expression, defined as “an imperative for society and to ensure the functioning of democracy.” Musk then explained that he did not believe that the current Twitter executives were able to guarantee this circumstance: “Since I started my investment, I have realized that the company will never be able to exploit or offer this imperative for the company in the its current form. Twitter must be transformed and made a non-listed company. “

These statements have prompted various observers to wonder what Musk means by” freedom of expression “, and especially if he has any idea of ​​the great complexity of the topic discussed for decades among jurists, communication experts and politicians, especially as regards social networks and more generally the Internet. The very concept of freedom of expression varies greatly depending on the countries and the rules decided by their governments.

In the United States, freedom of expression is protected by the Constitution and comes before many possibilities of limitation, in many countries of the European Union the rules are similar albeit with some more constraints, while in countries governed by authoritarian regimes the possibilities to express oneself freely are very limited and also bind social networks.

One a decade ago, then Twitter CEO Dick Costolo had said his social network was for freedom of expression in the highest possible forms. At the time, social networks existed for a few years and seemed to be a system to contribute to the free dissemination of information, in some cases overcoming censorship by governments. Twitter was, for example, central in the demonstrations and revolutions of the so-called “Arab Spring”, as well as in the dissemination of confidential news on the activities of governments by various organizations starting with WikiLeaks.

In the following years, the however, things would change quickly. In many countries, laws were passed to limit the dissemination of certain information, in some cases with the aim of reducing the circulation of false news and disinformation activities, in others with the clear aim of censoring content and hindering the dissemination of independent news. and beyond the control of governments. In a short time, Twitter, Facebook and the other social networks found themselves having to diversify and adapt their functioning in the various countries, according to the laws on freedom of expression and dissemination of particular information.

Except some exceptions, in the West the possibility of expressing oneself freely on social networks has been maintained, leaving the companies that manage them the task of moderating the contents and making sure that what circulates on their platforms is permitted by law. The managers of social networks have on several occasions received criticism for their moderation activities, deemed insufficient and ineffective especially in combating disinformation and hate messages, and ending up at the center of government investigations in the United States and the European Union, some still in progress.

In such a complex framework, with many nuances and implications, Musk's declarations on freedom of expression seemed to many generic and lacking in great knowledge on a subject debated for decades. In a recent interview, Musk said that the freedoms of expression offered by Twitter should in any case “correspond to what is allowed by the laws of individual countries” and defined the social network as the “agora” to make one's ideas public and compare them with those of other people.

In reality, the function of “agora” is not fulfilled by a single social network, but rather by the Internet in its entirety, of which Twitter is only a small part, with a relatively small amount of users (about 200 million daily users) compared to other much more popular platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram or TikTok.

In the interview Musk showed that he is mainly interested in systems that in his opinion can make Twitter's functioning more transparent: «It is really important that people have the perception and the possibility of being able to speak freely within the confines of the law. I generally think that the risks to civilization decrease as we can increase trust in Twitter as a public platform. “

Twitter algorithm should be open source

– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 24, 2022

The concept of transparency linked to Twitter had been mentioned by Musk on other occasions, when he proposed to make the algorithms that make the social network work freely accessible. Their use allows Twitter to highlight some tweets based on the interests of individual users, to report the most discussed topics on the platform and ultimately to encourage the use of the social network itself by increasing the involvement of individual users.

Like other platforms, Twitter also does not give precise information on how its algorithms work, both because they could be copied by the competition and because, knowing them, some users could take advantage of them to try to impose their own contents with respect to those of others. Musk thinks that making the algorithms and their functioning public would result in a freer platform, a sort of decentralized social network, where everyone can change and modulate the functioning of an algorithm at will.

Not however, it is clear how such an approach can better guarantee freedom of expression, considering that Twitter would still have the task of carrying out moderation activities and making sure that the contents published by users comply with the laws of individual countries. Public algorithms could also be exploited by those who carry out disinformation campaigns to impose their contents on the majority of users, who would not have the knowledge to customize or modify the algorithms to their liking. As some observers have noted, Google has always kept the functioning of its algorithms secret precisely to prevent site managers from taking advantage of them, highlighting their own contents even if less relevant than those of others for certain online searches.

Jack Dorsey, former co-founder of the social network and long its CEO, had already thought of a decentralized and more personalized version of Twitter. At the end of 2019 he had started the Bluesky project to try to make it happen, but after more than two years the initiative does not seem to have made much progress, becoming less relevant after the arrival at the helm of the company of the new CEO, Parag Agrawal.

Elon Musk could actually prove to be an obstacle to freedom of expression on Twitter. In the event that he gains full control of the social network, withdrawing it from the financial markets, he could make it much more blackmailable than now by governments intent on limiting the free flow of information. Musk, for example, has great interests in countries where factories are present for the construction of Tesla. If one of these countries decides to impose more restrictions on social networks, he could put pressure on the owner of Twitter by threatening to review or withdraw permits for the factories of his auto company. The same could happen with SpaceX, which brings satellites into space on behalf of several governments besides the US. gradually able to guide themselves to reusable rockets that have made Space more accessible and will continue to do so in the coming decades, also in view of new interplanetary explorations. It has managed to do so in areas where human unpredictability counts up to a certain point, especially when compared with the areas of communication and its evolution, which has undergone a dramatic acceleration from the Internet onwards.

The companies that manage the large platforms have experienced this in a tangible and sometimes dramatic way, still working today to find systems and solutions to hold together the freedoms of expression, the laws in individual countries and the opportunities for growth of their services. Musk's observations seem not to take them into account and bring the comparison back to issues that have now been overcome by the limited progress achieved in recent years, on which the platforms are trying to build their future.