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Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover might not mean end of free speech. Other factors at play

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As policymakers around the world grapple with regulating social media, the question is not whether social media will face government intervention, but how consequential those interventions will be. Today’s social titans hail largely from the United States, with its longstanding primacy of near-absolute freedom of speech. As those platforms have evolved into our global town squares, impacting nearly every country on earth, they have become modern lightning rods for the global tension between America’s historical adherence to communicative freedoms compared with the harsh restrictions of the rest of the world.

Elon Musk told the United Nations he would give them $6 billion to end world hunger if they showed him a detailed plan of how they would use the money. They called his bluff and gave him the plan and then they never got the money. Now, he has bought Twitter for $45 billion. I don’t really think Musk was ever sincere about solving world hunger.

Also read: How will Elon Musk change Twitter? Time will tell if involvement is for better — or for worse

Free speech means you don’t get killed, assaulted, or thrown in jail for the things you say. Others, including the state, have duties to refrain from causing you such harm. It does not mean others have a duty to respect what you say or to spare you from criticism or ridicule. Free speech does not mean freedom from criticism, ridicule, or reputational damage for the harmful things you say. You may have a general right to say what you want, but no one has a general duty to respect what you say. The real reason for free speech is not that all opinions have value or are worth airing. It’s that there is no individual or institution whom I trust to make the decision as to which opinions are worthless, on my behalf.

It’s pretty fascinating people are starting to define ‘free speech’ as giving one individual total control over a platform for communication. Do I trust Musk to be the arbiter of free speech on the planet that is our home for the foreseeable future? Hell, no. Musk recently tweeted, “A social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10 per cent on left and right are equally unhappy.” It turns out the extreme right has been exceedingly happy about his hostile takeover attempt. And that should get us worried that free speech can come at a high price.

There are roughly 2.4 crore Twitter users in India. Let’s say as many as 2 crore of them follow Modi. Add a crore of NRIs and foreigners, which forms 3 crores. His follower count today is at 7.8 crore. Who is the balanced 4.8 crore? Hopefully, Musk will remove fake followers as promised — at least 60% of Indian followers are fake. But after all he is a businessman. His endeavour would be to make more money from Twitter.

‘Free speech’ for most of the people in support of this really just means freedom to be a bigot and sling conspiracy theories without consequences. Twitter is a private company. Your job wouldn’t accept anyone just saying whatever they wanted, would they? Twitter will need a clear distinction between hate speech, threats, abuse vs free speech.

Think about how much he’s willing to pay for the collective amount of data we pump into the platform. It all comes down to whether or not you trust what he does with it. Although I think he’s brilliant, I also find him a bit detached from the human element. Time will tell.

The author is a student at  Indira Gandhi National Open University (Masters Political Science And International Relations), New Delhi. Views are personal

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