When Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced plans to buy Twitter for $43 billion, his letter to the company’s board made a succinct but sweeping argument about the platform’s value in as a forum for global freedom of expression. “I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech worldwide,” Musk wrote, “and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”
In subsequent comments, Musk suggested that under his leadership, Twitter would bring transparency to the platform’s recommendation algorithm, endorsed the rollout of an edit button, and underscored his belief that the rules of Twitter’s moderation should not extend beyond the laws of the country in which it operates. . But Musk provided few other details about how Twitter might support the concept of free speech, while glossing over complex issues that have plagued other social media platforms, such as content moderation and compliance with restrictive governments.
If Musk succeeds in his takeover attempt, he will inherit a company that is on the front lines of solving these issues around the world. This is especially true in countries that have shown themselves hostile to a free press and public dissent. In places like India, Nigeria and Russia, governments have pressured Twitter by outright banning the platform, issuing a flood of takedown demands and instituting so-called “privacy laws”. hostage taking,” requiring platforms to have in-country personnel who can be held legally responsible for any violations. A successful acquisition would mean Musk would inherit those challenges.
“Companies have an incentive to comply with repressive orders relating to online censorship or surveillance, not only because of financial constraints and commercial interests, but also for the safety of their employees,” said Kian Vesteinsson, technology and democracy research analyst at Freedom House.
Between January and June 2021, Twitter saw the highest number of government takedown requests globally since it began posting. transparency reports in 2012, with over 196,000 accounts reported. There are legitimate reasons governments ask for social media posts to be removed, including when they’re related to violent crime, financial scams, or child pornography. But as the legal mechanisms for takedowns are refined by authorities, court-ordered takedowns are increasingly a tool to tackle political discourse and messages about gender and religion.
Twitter doesn’t always comply with takedown requests, but, in countries like Indonesia and India that have passed new laws restricting online content, navigating the deluge of requests and upholding the principles of freedom of expression is a tightrope walk. Last year, the Modi government put increasing pressure on Twitter to remove content from activists and journalists following farmers’ protests. Tensions culminated in a May 2021 raid on Twitter’s offices in Delhi.
In addition to takedown requests, Twitter has had to figure out how to moderate public statements by government leaders, especially when they are mouthpieces for misinformation or calls for violence. Last fall, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro instituted a new law that would limit Twitter’s ability to moderate posts, including his own assertion that he would only lose the upcoming October 2022 election in the event of voter fraud. .
In June 2021, the moderation of a message from Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s Twitter account, threatening a secessionist group, became the catalyst for a nationwide ban on the platform that lasted until January 2022. Twitter was a tool essential for political protests in Nigeria. during the #EndSARS movement in 2020 and was a source of public health information during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rest of the world reported last year that negotiations to end the ban had led to concessions, including Twitter’s deals to pay taxes, share data and commit to national cohesion. Vesteinsson called the incident indicative of how world leaders have used the bans as leverage to influence Twitter’s operations. “By exploiting their ability as gatekeepers of certain markets, government officials can pressure companies to agree to terms of the authority’s operation,” he said.
Last year, Rest of the world also reported on the trend of hostage-taking laws, a series of government mandates requiring social media companies, including Twitter, to open physical offices or local data storage facilities in the countries where they operate. operate. Following Nigeria’s ban, Twitter was mandated to open an office in the capital Abuja, and similar laws came into effect in Turkey, Russia and Vietnam.
These laws make compliance issues for Twitter not only the continuation of operations in a given country, but also the physical safety of Twitter employees. “It really increases the risk for companies seeking to resist government orders, putting individual employees in the crosshairs.“, said Vesteinsson.
Two days after Musk attempted to buy the company, Twitter’s board passed a “poison pill” plan that would significantly test Musk’s ability to buy the company. In a TED talk after his initial takeover announcement, Musk suggested he had a “plan B” for such a scenario.
If Musk is successful, Twitter’s various run-ins with governments around the world suggest it will be difficult to sustain the social media company as a “platform for free speech.” In response to a question during his TED Talk about the prospect of running Twitter, Musk said, “I hope it’s not too miserable.”