Twitter @Freedom of Expression

Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has generated a storm of articles and editorials on the viability and implications of this business deal for the users of Twitter and the future of social media. I can’t even pretend to comment on the financial viability of his purchase except to note how skeptical critics have been of his previous business enterprises, such as Tesla and SpaceX, which unfolded in more positive ways than pundits imagined.

On the implications of this takeover, I wrestle with countervailing views. On the one hand, I thought Twitter was losing the plot as well as many users over the last few years, in part due to inappropriate decisions on content moderation. On the other hand, I have seen many of my academic colleagues wringing their hands over the potential threats to their research, often anchored in mining (your) Twitter data. And many if not most public intellectuals (and media scholars) have been supportive of increasing the role of internet and social media platforms in content moderation in line with pressure from politicians, traditional media, and the lay public. They seem to be worried that Twitter will relax some of these controls in due course as Elon Musk has been very outspoken about the value of freedom of expression. How these implications will take shape over the coming years is a great topic for research.

However, I think one impact will be relatively predicable although I have not seen sufficient discussion of it. My guess is that freedom of expression will reemerge on the public agenda across western democratic systems and possibly be the central issue about the future of social media. Freedom of speech, the press, and expression most generally have long been at stake in the regulation of the old and new media. Generally, despite cross-national differences in how expression is regulated, the internet and social media have developed across the western liberal democracies in ways that have supported freedom of expression. However, as the new media, particularly social media, have come to be framed by a focus on potential harms in contrast with the benefits of access in our digital, post-industrial, information age, freedom of expression has been incrementally but continually sidelined.

Freedom of expression has never been absolute, but what freedoms that exist have faced an increasing number of threats resulting from efforts to address a growing litany of harms, primarily around child protection, but also about the polarization and toxicity of political discussion among adults. This has come to the point that I worry the world is not sleepwalking into but openly embracing a less open, less free, and less global internet.

Photo from SpaceXMania

Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter will move content moderation, freedom of expression, and the future of social media higher up in the public’s ever changing issue agenda. It might not rise as an issue given the other ‘polycrises’ the world is facing, but access to information and communication is central to addressing all these crises. And the Russian invasion of Ukraine has focused attention on the RF’s censorship of old and new media. So, it might well rise on all our issue agendas.

However, the resulting debate might not end well for freedom of expression given that so many public intellectuals and other elites have seen social media as a threat to their institutions, such as the press and mass media, and the relegation of freedom expression in the ‘harms’ agenda provides an opportunity to address it. This is a worry in that freedom of expression has long been protected by elites as the mass public is most easily convinced to support initiatives that reduce freedom of expression, even though they support it in the abstract.

Historically, the courts and political elites have been critical to protecting fundamental democratic freedoms in the face of legislative initiatives found to violate these principles.[1] That said, as increasing proportions of the public must realize that the internet and social media can be used to empower themselves to access and source information and develop their own networks, the public of our digital age might well be more supportive of efforts to protect such freedoms. In any case, democratic freedoms can no longer rely only on elites to protect them, so it is possible and desirable for freedom of expression to become a more prominent issue for debate across the world.

This could be one positive outcome of the Twitter storm of the day. If the Twitter debate focuses more research and debate on protecting and fostering freedom of expression online, it could make a meaningful contribution to democratic processes.  

[1] Bachrach, Peter. (1967), The Theory of Democratic Elitism. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Comments are most welcome