Elon Musk’s absolutism of free speech can endanger fragile democracies

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

It seems almost bizarre today, but in 1985 American cultural critic Neil Postman wrote a book warning that we were all Have fun to death. The “talking hairstyles” had turned television news into show business, devaluing public discourse. Television, he wrote, had created a new “species” of information more aptly described as disinformation—”misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented, or superficial information” that detracted from knowledge. The form now excluded meaningful content.

One shudders to think what Postman, who died in 2003, would have made of social media, which contains infinitely more creative forms of entertainment. The emergence of the Internet may have opened up tremendous 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 funniest outcome is the most likely.”

Twitter’s new owner certainly practices what he tweets: Musk’s 119 million followers are fascinated by his timeline. Interspersing SpaceX rocket launches, Twitter service updates, obfuscated jokes, and canny personal commentary, Musk is the master of the medium he now controls. Daily active users have hit record highs, he says, despite his mass firing of Twitter staff. Content moderation now reflects his personal whims or has been turned into immersive theater: The decision whether to restore former US President Donald Trump’s account has become an online poll (52% of 15 million voting users – or bots – they were in favor).

The knee-jerk response to Musk’s digital antics might be: so what? Following the $44 billion acquisition, Twitter is now a privately held company. If Musk wants to take the wheels off his digital train to amuse the crowd, then who cares? If users and advertisers are offended, they are free to stop and seek enlightenment elsewhere.

But why the rules and practices of social media platforms matter is chillingly explained in a new book by Maria Ressa, the Filipina journalist and joint winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. How to resist a dictatorRessa argues that US platforms focus too much 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 nation, yet their services are minimally moderated. “The Philippines sets the benchmark for the dire effects social media can have on a nation’s institutions, its culture, and the minds of its people,” Ressa writes. Social media has been blamed for inflaming communal violence in several countries, including India, Myanmar and Ethiopia.

A veteran CNN reporter, Ressa was initially among the “truest believers” in social media as a means to enrich public debate. But he has seen firsthand how former President Rodrigo Duterte has weaponized technology in the Philippines through the abuse of coordinated disinformation campaigns, bot farms, and malicious social influencers. Opposition politicians have become victims of vicious online hate campaigns and fake sex tapes.

The independent media site Rappler that Ressa co-founded has also come under fire from Duterte’s digital mob. At one point, Ressa was receiving 90 hate messages an hour on his Facebook page. Although she documented this harassment online, her complaints about it fell on deaf ears because anger had become the “contagious currency of Facebook’s profit machine,” as she puts it. “Violence has enriched Facebook.”

At least Facebook, since renamed Meta, now acknowledges the problems its platforms can cause, even as critics, like Ressa, say it still can’t come up with effective solutions. Meta’s latest widely viewed content report shows that its most popular posts are trashy, rather than toxic, which can be considered some kind of progress. The company has also established an oversight board of outside experts to scrutinize its content practices.

Trust in social media companies has received “an absolute breakthrough” in recent years, Dex Hunter-Torricke, head of communications at Meta’s Oversight Board, acknowledged at the Sky News Big Ideas festival on Saturday. It wouldn’t help restore trust 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 square.” But in the squares there are also hooligans, criminals and propagandists who threaten the public good. Maximum freedom of speech is not always compatible with minimum democracy.

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