Technology

Musk’s spot on Twitter board stirs debate about platform safety, free speech

Associated Press/Matt Rourke
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, shown in a Nov. 1, 2021, file photo, is buying Twitter for $44 billion and intends to take the company private. He wants to restore the principles of free speech to the platform.

Twitter’s announcement Tuesday that the company would appoint billionaire Elon Musk to its board of directors is stirring debate and some criticism amid worries that the Tesla CEO could shift the nature of a social media forum heavily used in media circles. 

Musk has been an active Twitter user and has sometimes criticized the company, arguing in recent weeks that it has strayed from free speech principles.  

As Twitter’s largest stock holder, Musk would have a role in advising Twitter on how to moderate content and police users — including politicians.  

Twitter was instrumental in former President Trump’s rise in politics. But the former president has been unable to find a similar tool to connect with a wide audience since Twitter removed him from the platform after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol.  

Musk’s new position as a Twitter board member for at least two years has excited Republicans, who are hopeful it will usher in an era of relaxed content moderation.  

But some progressive activists, technology executives and scholars are wary that Musk’s influence could lead to a more hostile platform.  

“The problem is that we are engaged in a worldwide effort to understand how best to use the internet as a platform for democracy, and Elon Musk has been, for a variety of reasons that I can only guess at, has been very critical of those kinds of efforts and espouses a very simplistic political philosophy that will invariably lead to greater degrees of social inequity and present obstacles to the democratic process,” said Aram Sinnreich, chair of communications studies at American University. “And that’s a big step backwards.”  

Unlike Facebook, which has left open the possibility of bringing Trump’s account back in 2023, Twitter permanently banned Trump from the site following the insurrection last year. Company executives doubled down later, saying even if Trump runs for office again, he will remain banned from the platform.  

But conservatives are hopeful that Musk’s placement on Twitter’s board will mean the return of Trump’s account and have been encouraged by Musk’s calls for less content moderation.

“Now that @ElonMusk is Twitter’s largest shareholder, it’s time to lift the political censorship. Oh… and BRING BACK TRUMP!” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) tweeted.  

Boebert was one of many users on the platform urging for Trump’s return after it was revealed that Musk would join Twitter’s board.  

In a statement, Twitter said its policy decisions are “not determined by the Board or shareholders” and the company has “no plans to reverse any policy decisions.”  

“As always our Board plays an important advisory and feedback role across the entirety of our service. Our day-to-day operations and decisions are made by Twitter management and employees,” the company said.  

Republicans have long accused Twitter and other mainstream social media platforms of censoring conservative content. The accusations have been a driving force behind Republicans’ push to repeal or reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides a liability shield for internet companies based on content posted by third parties.  

Musk disclosed on Monday that he acquired a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter. In the weeks leading up to the announcement, the tech mogul used the platform to poll his followers about free speech on Twitter.  

“Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” Musk tweeted on March 25.  

He told followers that the “consequences” of the poll will be “important” and to vote carefully. 

The informal results ended with 70 percent voting “no,” and Musk said that as a “de facto public town square,” Twitter’s failure “to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.”  

“Is a new platform needed?” he tweeted.  

It’s not clear how direct a role Musk will play in influencing Twitter’s policy decisions. He is limited from owning more than 14.9 percent of Twitter’s stock, according to a company filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.  

“I’m reading that to mean that Twitter structured the deal in a way that makes it nearly impossible for Musk to single-handedly or through combined ownership take control,” said Tim Karr, senior director of strategy and communications at Free Press. “If he wants to change the company’s moderation practices and rules, he would have to work closely with other board members and the company’s leaders and staff.” 

“If he’s going to bring ideas about how to moderate better and in more sophisticated ways, I’m sure the company will be more than willing to listen. But as other failed platforms show, if you want to operate at scale, then making the space civil is both challenging and necessary,” Karr added in an email.  

Musk has already suggested there are changes to come. He tweeted Tuesday that he is  “looking forward to working with [Twitter CEO] Parag [Agrawal] & Twitter board to make significant improvements to Twitter in coming months!” 

While the level of influence Musk may have on Twitter remains uncertain, his tweets signaling a desire for Twitter to pull back some of its content moderation policies, coupled with allegations of racism at Musk’s electric car company Tesla, are raising alarms from activists and some tech executives.  

“The kind of libertarian vision that Musk has espoused, which is this kind of facile premise that, like, all speech is good speech and all speech is equivalently valuable, is absurd and has been demonstrated in a zillion different ways to be wrong,” Sinnreich said.  

Ellen K. Pao, former Reddit CEO and co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit Project Include, tweeted: “I hope the team at Twitter is figuring out how to limit Musk’s influence.”  

“They’ve been making progress on harassment, and now they’re a target. He wants to take them back to a free-for-all, and most users don’t want that at all,” she added.  

Anil Dash, CEO of software startup Glitch, said the “chilling effect on journalism on Twitter will be severe.”   

“Musk is known to directly target his critics, including swatting one of his earliest vocal critics. Twitter will not ban him as a board member the next time he attacks a journalist,” Dash tweeted.  

The emphasis on allowing all, or even most, speech, though, is a central reason Republicans have welcomed Musk’s role on Twitter’s board.  

“I think it’s fabulous,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told The Hill. “Elon believes in freedom. Elon is an entrepreneur. Elon is such an American success story.”  

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of the most outspoken critics of tech companies’ content moderation policies, told reporters Musk’s new tie to Twitter is “a good thing” and “can only help.”  

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who was permanently banned from Twitter in January, told The Hill it “depends on what he does” but said she would “love to see someone take over Twitter that will actually bring free speech back and not just for, you know, I don’t know, like the Taliban and any kind of bad guy that wants to tweet whatever they want or porn.” 

Greene was permanently suspended based on repeated violations of Twitter’s COVID-19 misinformation policy.  

Emily Brooks contributed. 

Tags anti-conservative bias content moderation Elon Musk Jan. 6 Capitol riot Lauren Boebert Section 230 Social media Trump Twitter

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