Elon Musk in the crosshairs. The purchase of Twitter raises all kinds of conflicts of interest

The purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk raises doubts about a possible conflict of interest, mainly in China, where Tesla seeks to grow but at the same time the social network faces many restrictions

Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, has described Twitter as the “de facto public square.” On April 25, he reached an agreement to take it private in what will be one of the largest leveraged buyouts in history. Musk, the head of companies including Tesla, a carmaker, and SpaceX, an aerospace company, put together an all-cash offer worth about $44 billion. Musk himself is providing most of the financing, in the form of $21 billion in equity and a $12.5 billion loan against his shares in Tesla. If it’s a big deal in business terms, it could be even more so in what it means for the regulation of online speech.

Twitter is obviously not an attractive business. With 217 million daily users, it is an order of magnitude smaller than Facebook, the world’s largest social network, and has lagged far behind Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. Its share price has risen for years: last month it was lower than it was at its 2013 IPO.

Musk expected to be temporary CEO of Twitter after closing his purchase: cnbc

But Musk is not interested in Twitter as a business. “I don’t care about the economy at all,” he said at a TED talk earlier this month. “This is just my strong, intuitive feeling that having a public platform that is highly trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.”

His willingness to spend a large part of his fortune on making Twitter more “inclusive” follows a period in which he has tightened the moderation of his content. A decade ago, Twitter executives joked that the company was “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” But the Donald Trump presidency and the Covid-19 pandemic persuaded the company (and most other social networks) that free speech had some downsides. Trump was eventually banned from Twitter, as well as Facebook, YouTube and others, following the January 2021 Capitol riots. Misinformation about covid and other topics was flagged and blocked. In the first half of 2021, Twitter removed 5.9 million pieces of content, up from 1.9 million two years earlier. In the same period, 1.2 million accounts were suspended, an increase of 700,000.

How could Musk change things? It has said it will publish Twitter’s code, including its recommendation algorithm, in a bid to be more transparent. It proposes to authenticate all users and “defeat spam bots.” And it will be “very cautious with permanent bans”, preferring “time outs”, he told TED. This suggests breathing room for Trump and other banned politicians, as advocated by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which counts Musk as one of its biggest donors.

If Twitter were to take a purist line on free speech, the immediate winners could be its most critical rivals, suggests Evelyn Douek, an online speech expert at Harvard Law School. Until now, the major social networks have established roughly similar content moderation policies, each loath to be an outlier. “You can imagine a Twitter with Trump back on the platform of him just making headlines all day, every day, while the other platforms sat back and ate their popcorn,” she says.

Musk never seemed to mind being in the headlines. Still, it may be harder for him than he expects to break moderation. Advertiser boycotts, which provide nearly all of Twitter’s revenue, may not bother you. But the Twitter app relies on distribution from the Apple and Google app stores; both suspended Parler after the Capitol riots. Governments are also tightening their laws on online speech. On April 23, the European Union announced that it had agreed to the outline of a new Digital Services Law, which will force social networks to more closely monitor speech on their platforms. Britain is preparing an even tougher online security bill. Twitter sent 43,000 content removal requests based on local laws in the first half of 2021, more than double the number two years earlier.

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Another question is whether Musk will manage to stick to his own principles. Social networks face a conflict of interest when the people who set the moderation policies are also in charge of growth, Douek says. Would Musk’s approach to free speech be influenced by his many other interests? Tesla, for example, hopes to expand in China, whose state media receives prominent warning labels from Twitter. As a Twitter user, Musk has a history of using the platform vindictively. He was sued (unsuccessfully) after tagging an online enemy with an insult; And a few weeks ago, after a falling out with Bill Gates, he posted an unflattering picture of the Microsoft founder with the caption “in case you need to lose a boner fast”.

Musk insists that as the owner of the platform, he will be impartial. “I hope even my worst critics stay on Twitter, because that’s what free speech means,” he tweeted on April 25, shortly before the company’s board accepted his offer. Some users had other ideas: On the same day, a trending topic was “Trump’s Twitter.”

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