Elon Musk’s free speech absolutism could threaten fragile democracies

The writer is the founder He toastedis a FT-backed media company dealing with European start-ups

It seems almost strange now, but in 1985 the American cultural critic Neil Postman wrote a book in which he warned that all We’ll have fun until we die. “Talking hair” turned TV news into showbiz entertainment, cheapening public speaking. Television, he wrote, created a new “species” of information, more accurately called disinformation—”misguided, irrelevant, fragmented, or superficial information” that degrades knowledge. The form now excludes meaningful content.

One shudders to think what Postás, who died in 2003, would have made of social media, which contains endless creative ways to entertain ourselves. The emergence of the Internet may have opened up extraordinary opportunities for deepening public discourse. But the spirit of our time was perhaps best captured by Elon Musk’s tweet over the weekend: “The most fun outcome is the most likely.”

Twitter’s new owner is certainly practicing what it tweets: Musk’s 119 million followers are engaged by his timeline. Between SpaceX rocket launches, Twitter service updates, off-color jokes and sly personal commentary, Musk is the master of the medium he controls. He claims that daily active users have reached a record high, despite Twitter’s mass layoffs. Content moderation now reflects personal whims or has become immersive theater — the decision to reinstate former US President Donald Trump’s account has become an online vote (52 percent of 15 million voting users — or bots — supported it).

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The instinctive response to Musk’s digital antics might be: so what? After its $44 billion acquisition, Twitter is now a private company. If Musk wants to pull the wheels off his digital train to entertain the masses, who cares? If users and advertisers are offended, they are free to exit and look elsewhere for clarification.

But why the rules and practices of social media platforms matter is chillingly described in a new book by Maria Ressa, a Filipino journalist and joint winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. How to stand up to a dictatorRessa argues that American platforms are overly focused on users in rich 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 is ground zero for the terrible effects social media can have on a nation’s institutions, culture, and the minds of its people,” Ressa writes. Social media has been accused of fueling communal violence in several countries, including India, Myanmar and Ethiopia.

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A veteran CNN journalist, Ressa initially took to social media as one of the “truest believers” to enrich the public debate. But he saw firsthand how former President Rodrigo Duterte weaponized technology in the Philippines with 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 mafia. At one point, Ressa was getting 90 hate messages on her Facebook page every hour. Although he documented this online harassment, his complaints fell on deaf ears as the anger became, as he puts it, “the contagious currency of Facebook’s profit machine.” “Violence Made Facebook Rich.”

Rebranded as Meta, Facebook at least acknowledges the problems its platforms cause, even if critics like Ressa say it still can’t find effective solutions. Meta’s latest widely viewed content report shows that its most popular posts are trashy rather than toxic, which is an improvement. The company has also set up a Supervisory Committee made up of external experts to monitor its content-related practices.

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Dex Hunter-Torricke, head of communications at Meta’s watchdog, admitted on Saturday at the Sky News Big Ideas festival that trust in social media companies has been “absolutely fluctuating” in recent years. It wouldn’t help restore trust if users wondered if Musk was making decisions based on personal preferences rather than content moderation guidelines.

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

Source: https://www.ft.com/content/994f0ef1-5a82-46d2-af6a-7e7eb074fcd8