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Elon Musk’s free speech absolutism could endanger fragile democracies

Elon Musk’s free speech absolutism could endanger fragile democracies

The writer is the founder of Thamesan FT-backed media company covering European start-ups

It seems almost quaint today, but in 1985 American cultural critic Neil Postman wrote a book warning that we were all fun to die for. “Talking hairstyles” had turned television news into showbiz entertainment, devaluing public discourse. Television, he wrote, had created a new “species” of information more properly described as misinformation – “misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented, or superficial information” that interfered with knowledge. The form now excluded meaningful content.

One shudders to think what Postman, who died in 2003, would have done with social media, which contains infinitely more creative forms for fun. The emergence of the Internet has perhaps opened up extraordinary possibilities for deepening public discourse. But the spirit of our times was perhaps best captured by a tweet from Elon Musk over the weekend: “The most entertaining outcome is the most likely.”

Twitter’s new owner certainly practices what he tweets: Musk’s 119 million followers are mesmerized by his timeline. Interspersing SpaceX rocket launches, Twitter service updates, offbeat jokes and snarky personal comments, Musk is the master of the medium he now controls. Daily active users have reached record highs, he claims, despite his massive layoff of Twitter staff. Content moderation now reflects personal whims or has been turned into immersive theater – whether or not to restore former US President Donald Trump’s account has become an online poll (52% of users voting 15 Minutes – or bots – were in favor).

The instinctive response to Musk’s digital antics may be: so what? After its $44 billion acquisition, Twitter is now a private company. If Musk wants to remove the wheels from his digital train to amuse the crowd, then who cares? If users and advertisers are offended, they are free to resign and seek clarification elsewhere.

But why the rules and practices of social media platforms matter is chillingly explained in a new book by Maria Ressa, a Filipina journalist and co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. How to stand up to a dictatorRessa argues that US platforms focus excessively on users in wealthy Western democracies and mostly ignore those in the rest of the world.

Surveys repeatedly show that Filipinos spend more time online than any other country, but their services are poorly moderated. “The Philippines are the source of the terrible effects that social media can have on a nation’s institutions, its culture and the minds of its people,” Ressa writes. Social media has been accused of stoking communal violence in several countries, including India, Myanmar and Ethiopia.

A veteran CNN reporter, Ressa was first among the “most loyal of true believers” in social media as a way to enrich public debate. But she has seen with her own eyes how former President Rodrigo Duterte has weaponized technology in the Philippines by abusing coordinated disinformation campaigns, bot farms and malicious social influencers. Opposition politicians have been victims of vicious online hate campaigns and fake sex tapes.

Independent media site Rappler, which Ressa co-founded, has also been targeted by Duterte’s digital mob. At one point, Ressa was receiving 90 hate messages per hour on her Facebook page. Although she documented this harassment online, her complaints fell on deaf ears as anger had become the “contagious currency of Facebook’s profit machine”, as she puts it. “Violence enriched Facebook.”

At least Facebook, since renamed Meta, now recognizes the problems its platforms can cause, though critics like Ressa say it still lacks effective solutions. Meta’s latest widely viewed content report shows that its most popular posts are trashy rather than toxic, which can be considered a bit of progress. The company has also set up an oversight committee made up of outside experts to review its content practices.

Trust in social media companies has received “an absolute boost” in recent years, Dex Hunter-Torricke, head of communications at Meta’s oversight board, acknowledged at the Sky News Big Ideas festival on Saturday. Restoring trust wouldn’t help if users questioned whether Musk was making decisions based on personal preferences rather than content moderation policies, he said.

Musk’s stated ambition in buying Twitter is to create a “common digital public square.” But city squares are also home to thugs, criminals and propagandists who threaten the public good. Maximum freedom of expression is not always compatible with minimum democracy.

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