190717 Elon Musk
Elon Musk wants to 'authenticate all real humans' on Twitter Image Credit: AFP

So in case you missed the news, the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, woke up one day and decided he would buy the social media giant Twitter for $44 billion. Because, you know, he felt like it.

The announcement to buy Twitter is very much in keeping with Musk’s eccentric personality. But what will it mean for the fight against hate speech and disinformation online?

Musk is a self proclaimed free speech “absolutist”. In the past he has said he is not in favour of permanent bans on Twitter, and that “timeouts are better”.

The most famous person to be banned by Twitter is the former US President Donald Trump. At that time Musk tweeted: “a lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech”.

No one knows yet if Musk would “un-ban” Trump but Trump himself he said he is not interested, as he seeks to promote his own social media platform.

Musk’s takeover of Twitter

The worry therefore is whether Musk’s takeover of Twitter, which will go from being a public company with investor scrutiny to a private firm with none, will mean more hate speech and disinformation in the garb of “free speech”.

From leaning for or against one side in elections to toxic hate directed at women and marginalised groups and outright lies about covid vaccines, the social media space has been fighting against plenty for the past few years.

Will Musk allow those who spread hate and lies to be back on the platform?

Just days ago, Musk addressed the issue and said “by ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” He also criticised those who had questioned him, calling it “extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech”.

However his absolutist ideas many not be so easy to implement. Several countries have been pushing back against big tech like Facebook/ Meta, Twitter and Google on hate speech and disinformation.

Just last week, the 27 member European Union agreed on a tough new law that will penalise big tech firms if they violate rules on hate speech etc. This includes billions of dollars in fines and even a ban on repeat offenders.

A senior EU official has already warned Elon Musk that he will need to comply with their rules.

EU’s new Digital Services Act

The EU's internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said the American social network will have to comply with the EU’s new Digital Services Act. “Whether on online harassment, the sale of counterfeit products... child pornography, or calls for acts of terrorism... Twitter will have to adapt to our European regulations which do not exist in the United States,” EU commissioner told news agency AFP.

Experts point out it won’t be so easy for Musk to operate as freely as he wants, given the laws governing individual countries.

How would governments that seek to ban social media handles, deal with Musk and he with them? The Indian government has had run ins with Twitter in the past and says its “expectations of accountability of all intermediaries operating in India remains unchanged”.

India’s IT Rules make a social media intermediary and its executives liable if the company fails to carry out due diligence. The rules call for companies like Facebook and Google to appoint a chief compliance officer who could be booked if a tweet or post that violates local laws is not removed within the stipulated period.

Musk himself is pretty unhinged on Twitter, so much so that you would think a 13 year old is tweeting, not the world’s richest man. To a point where he has even damaged his own company Tesla.

In May 2020, he tweeted, “Tesla stock price is too high imo”, which promptly wiped $14 billion off of Tesla’s value, including $3 billion off of Musk’s own personal stake.

There was “Nuke Mars!” in August 2019. There are still months to go before Musk’s Twitter takeover is final. How he deals with hate speech vs free speech is what the world is now watching.