In a Tweet announcing his decision to buy social media platform Twitter, for approximately US$44 billion, Tech Billionaire Elon Musk said the platform will be the critical meeting ground for the democratic debate of the future.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” said Musk.
Whilst Musk says he does not want to “politicise” the platform for many users, Musk’s idea of free speech is simplistic and does not involve the exchange of ideas critical to democratic debate.
Professor at Sydney University Kai Riemer said Elon Musk is taking a very individualistic approach to free speech. Allowing everyone to say what they want is not likely to create a more democratic conversation.
“If you take speech as a discourse, as a debate, as having a civil, free and fair exchange of ideas, that is the definition, by the legal profession in the U.S.”
“If you take that view, getting rid of content moderation is detrimental to free speech because you no longer have a safe environment in which everyone can participate in the free and fair exchange of ideas,” he said.
In contrast to Musk’s idea of democratic debate, Mr Riemer said that removing content moderation would allow more bullies and extremist content will likely further crowd out a diversity of voices on the platform.
“It’s a question of what understanding of free speech he will operate under.”
“The fear is that it is an individual one that it is about anyone being able to say whatever they want, but that that will not be conducive to have a free and fair exchange of ideas.”
For Mr Riemer, free speech is already compromised from the moment social networking algorithms decide what users see in their feed.
“These algorithms interfere in free speech by deciding who gets to see what speech, that is not free speech that is algorithmically distorted speech,” he said.
“What engages people is often polarising content, often enraging content.
“Speech is already distorted quite heavily by algorithms promoting speech that is more engaging and demoting speech that is less engaging.”
Musk being “politically neutral” may not be an option at this stage as his takeover has already inspired many to leave the platform and new interest from his league of supporters.
University of Sydney Professor Terry Flew said that Twitter has attracted a relatively niche following that many people in the tech sector see as underperforming its potential despite its enormous reach.
“Musk’s takeover of Twitter will mark the end of Twitter’s reputation as an ‘alternative’ social media platform.
“The sense that Twitter was alternative ¬to Facebook, in particular motivated many of its users.
“At the same time, it led the platform into a business cul-de-sac, unable to grow beyond certain niches,” he said.
“It could be a bit of a sleeping giant for the tech sector. Its relative underperformance may be as much due to its management and its culture, or due to the possibilities of the platform itself.”
Mr Flew said that the engagement curve for Twitter has been much higher than other social media platforms, which typically invite announcements over conversations.
“The nature of Twitter is to invite response and if that is not what you are looking for, then in its current form, it is not a great distribution platform for media messages.
“The platform requires you to always be on it. For those who basically want to use it as a broadcast channel rather than spending their day interacting with people, Twitter has disadvantages to platforms like Facebook where people tend to put a message out and ignore it,” he said.
“That is both the strength and the weakness of Twitter, the immediacy and the engagement, but there is a sense that once you are on it, you have to be perpetually vigilante in the face of trolls and critics and whatnot.”
In Broken Hill, Twitter usage is minimal or consistent with the 2.6% of Australians who consider it their favourite social media platform.
The power of Facebook and its appeal of social announcement seem to trump the idea of civil, fair and democratic debate in both the digital and real town square.