The tweet that could cook Twitter’s goose

Perversity being what it is, I think Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter could be the best thing that could happen to the Christchurch Call.

Remember the Christchurch Call, the international effort to curb online hate speech led by Jacinda Ardern after the mosque attacks? Do you recall the enthusiasm with which social media platforms joined international leaders to commit to a better tomorrow and Facebook, Twitter and Google collectively stating they were “resolute in our commitment to ensure we are doing all we can to fight the hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence”?

Last Thursday we had confirmation of what we already knew: The social media platforms were either inept or liars. The Washington-based Center for Countering Digital Hate produced a report showing the platforms had failed to act on Anti-Muslim hate 89 per cent of the time. We can only imagine their failure rate on other forms of hate speech, to say nothing of dangerous disinformation, although the centre has previously identified failures to deal with antisemitism, anti-black racism, misogyny, and anti-vax disinformation.

The centre, using the platforms’ own search tools, identified 530 anti-Muslim posts that had been viewed at least 25 million times and much of the abusive content was easily identifiable. Users were able to adopt hashtags that were overtly anti-Muslim. Posts supporting the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that formed the basis of Christchurch terrorist Brenton Tarrant’s ‘manifesto’ continue to be carried on the platforms.

So how does Musk’s purchase of Twitter potentially help to rid the world of such poison?

It certainly will not come from Musk’s vision of Twitter as a free speech paradise, a “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”. Musk is a self-described “free speech absolutist” and that suggests an anything-goes attitude that sweeps away the civil society concept of acceptable limits. He has already criticised Twitter’s legal counsel over decisions to block two posts that were deemed defamatory. Those exchanges over the named Twitter executives have seen them pilloried on other social media platforms.

There is also speculation that Musk will re-admit Twitter users who have been banned, including former president Donald Trump. Trump has said he won’t take up an invitation, preferring to stay with the social media platform he created as a personal megaphone. Last Wednesday, Musk tweeted that Trump’s platform, Truth Social, was “currently beating Twitter & TikTok on the Apple Store”.  However, a month earlier, Guardian writer Adam Gabbatt said of the platform: “Truth Social has become a laughingstock, marked by a botched rollout, a share price collapse and, in Trump, a figurehead who doesn’t actually post much to his own social media platform”. Expect Trump to write off his invitation rejection as ‘fake news’ if Twitter re-opens its door to him.

Musk’s public utterances about the future of Twitter have been, at turns, vague or ambiguous (and often at odds with a clause in the Twitter sale agreement in which he promises not to “disparage” the company or its employees). However, the general tenor has been that the platform will be subject to fewer controls than at present. That suggests increasing extremism. Duke University professor Chris Bail estimates six per cent of Twitter users generate 76 per cent of all political content on the platform and they are “overwhelmingly from the extremes”.

Perversely (I told you so), this could be the trigger that might realise the Christchurch Call’s objectives. It may be the step too far that finally brings formal regulation down on the social platform companies’ Gorgon-like heads.

The United States has failed the world by allowing the owners of social media and search platforms to largely avoid responsibility for content. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (passed just as the Internet was hitting its stride in 1996) absolves platforms of responsibility for content posted by others. The EU has introduced laws that hold the platforms accountable while the United Kingdom is working its way tortuously through an Online Safety Bill but, until the homeland of the social media giants acts, the measures have limited effect on a global village.

The prospect of even greater extremism in an already riven country, plus the deeply corrosive effects of disinformation, may be sufficient to persuade enough U.S. legislators to repeal Section 230 and send a clear message to Mega, Alphabet (Google’s parent) and Musk.

Nothing would induce a rush of responsibility more than facing a raft of heavy fines for breaching federal law. Their definitions of ‘free speech’ would suddenly be more proscribed if they had to accept some responsibility for what was said via their platforms.

The message would be sheeted home by the creation of a new regulating agency, one that would not suffer from the tarnished reputation of the Federal Communications Commission, which did a Pontius Pilate on social media content regulation and allowed wholesale consolidation of broadcasting ownership.

Ideally, reform would not end there. It should be followed by a treaty to enshrine platform responsibility in international law, either led by the United States or with its willing participation. That would serve the dual purposes of uniformity and preventing the companies from moving to a more accommodating jurisdiction. Yes, there would be countries that refuse to become signatories, but would Twitter have the same cachet if it was headquartered in Panama alongside maritime flags of convenience?

Am I over-reacting? After all, Elon Musk was the man that brought the world cost-effective space missions and electric cars for the masses. Surely, he can be trusted to act responsibly with his newest acquisition? Perhaps he can, but my trust in his stewardship of a massively powerful communication medium was eroded by what I have read about the way he runs his companies and his responses to criticism.  And to top it off, I read the following from former US Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich. I once lunched with Reich and was impressed by (among many things) his integrity. This is what he wrote:

With social media, the ordinary rules of competition don’t apply. Once a platform is dominant it becomes even more dominant. As Donald Trump discovered with his “Truth Social” fiasco, upstarts don’t stand much chance.

Musk’s real goal has nothing to do with the freedom of others. His goal is his own unconstrained freedom — the freedom to wield enormous power without having to be accountable to laws and regulations, to shareholders, or to market competition — which is why he’s dead set on owning Twitter.

Unlike his ambitions to upend transportation and interstellar flight, this one is dangerous. It might well upend democracy.

Unregulated growth

If you are still wondering why you should be worried about the unregulated nature of social media and other platforms, look no further than their impact in New Zealand advertising revenue.

The latest figures released by the Advertising Standards Authority and the Interactive Advertising Bureau show that, even allowing for Covid disruptions, digital media account for far and away the largest part of the advertising market.

Last year digital media took $1.8 billion in revenue, almost 58 per cent of the total pie. Less than 10 per cent of that money went to the digital platforms of traditional New Zealand media organisations. In other words, most went to the multinational platforms of which Twitter is one.

The overall trend for our traditional media is, at best, lacklustre. Television and radio are basically flatlining while newspapers continue their downward slide. In 2021 Television’s revenue excluding digital was $534 million, radio was $257 million and newspapers $219 million.

The graph below speaks louder than words.

One thought on “The tweet that could cook Twitter’s goose

  1. I agree Gavin, the oversight of hate speech is a complete joke. I reported to Facebook the posting of a cartoon which showed the Koran being used as toilet paper. It was deemed to be not in breach of hate speech. Yet when I posted a comment on the Ukraine war, comparing Putin’s policy of “liberation” of Russian speakers in Ukraine to Hitler’s Sudetenland policy, it was taken down as “hate speech”.

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