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Elon Musk’s Twitter deal on hold but concerns remain — from free speech to algorithms

The closer Elon Musk gets to gaining control of Twitter, the more difficult it will be for him to take absolutist positions.

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SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently announced on Twitter that his much anticipated acquisition of the social media networking platform was temporarily being put on hold. In the run-up to this buyout, Musk, who reiterated his commitment to the deal in a subsequent tweet, has confused the policy discourse on social media with his utterances. On 27 April, just two days after the official announcement of the acquisition, Musk, a free speech absolutist, clarified that free speech for him meant “that which matches the law”. However, it is important to cut through the noise to analyse the key policy implications the Musk-Twitter deal will have on social media discourse.

First, while there will be changes to content-related governance norms on Twitter, they may just be incremental. Musk has said that he is ready to align Twitter with the law. But that is easier said than done. Content moderation on social media has never been easy, as free speech laws vary from nation to nation and are prone to subjective interpretation. For example, blocking laws in India can be invoked on wide grounds such as if the government of the day feels that the content threatens public order or security of India. Most forms of media have been censored on similar grounds.

Seventy-five years of  independent India’s history are littered with instances where films have been censored on the contention that they have the potential to disturb public order. In 1975, Aandhi, a political drama about then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was banned throughout the Emergency. In 2005,  The Da Vinci Code movie was banned in five states to protect the religious sentiments of the Christian community. This was imposed despite the fact that the novel on which it was based was available for sale in India. In 2018, Padmaavat was banned in four states citing fears of violence as protesters alleged it portrayed a Rajput queen in bad light.

It will, therefore, not be easy to sustain Twitter as “the de facto public town square”, as Musk calls it. It also is unclear how Twitter will abide by country-specific free speech laws without fragmenting the platform.

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

Problems with straitjacket solutions 

Musk has also suggested that messages sent via Twitter’s Direct Messaging feature be end-to-end (E2E) encrypted, just like those on Signal and WhatsApp — another example of creating confusion where none existed. However, that doesn’t reconcile with the Information Technology Rules, 2021, which place message traceability provisions on social media intermediaries. The Rules mandate intermediaries to trace the original source of a particular message, which will require social media companies to break any end-to-end encryption they may have put in place. Does this mean Musk will offer strict E2E encryption in some countries and backdoors built into Twitter messaging in others? Surely, complying with encryption regulations in different countries will mean Twitter will have to introduce varying standards of encryption across the world.

This isn’t the first time Musk’s utterances have demonstrated the difficulties in implementing a straitjacket solution to social media governance. In late April, he vowed to get rid of all bots on Twitter if he bought over the platform. On 13 May, he said the deal was being put on hold “pending details supporting calculations that spam/fake accounts do represent less than 5% of users”. To find out, he added, his team would sample 100 followers of Twitter. Musk also invited others to do the same “and see what they discover”. It remains unclear how this sample of 100 followers would be chosen and on what criteria will the analysis be done to determine whether they are bots or not.

Second, Musk’s intention to make algorithms transparent is likely to attract more eyeballs to the issue and yet, may lead to unintended consequences unless Twitter makes a concerted effort to incorporate ethical algorithms. In mid-April, Musk had said that if he bought Twitter, he would make public the algorithm that determines what people see on their timelines. “Specifically, he said he wants to make the algorithm that recommends whether a tweet gets promoted or demoted ‘open source,’ or available for the public to view and improve upon. That, he said, will help prevent “behind the scenes manipulation,” according to a Washington Post report.

Also read: Asia poses a challenge to Elon Musk’s idea of ‘free speech’ on Twitter

The transparency conundrum 

The emphasis on algorithmic transparency stems from a growing belief worldwide that Big Tech needs to be held accountable for its actions. Just like international law, which has certain basic values embedded in it, contemporary internet governance norms, too, have fundamental principles rooted in them. Transparency is one of them. At the recent Raisina Dialogue conference, Rajeev Chandrashekhar, India’s Minister of State for Information and Technology, said that algorithmic biases exist and therefore, “we need to create a mechanism to ensure accountability on algorithmic coding”.

However, the key question is: It is possible that, in future, governments around the world might ask social media platforms to de-prioritise certain algorithms and prioritise others. How “transparent” would such a scenario be? Ultimately, the more Elon Musk talks about algorithmic transparency, the more it will affect policymaking and popular discourse. And this is associated with the risk that the positive value that is algorithmic transparency will be repurposed and deployed in a manner that might be detrimental to users and businesses alike.

All of these developments indicate that the closer Musk gets to gaining control of Twitter, the more difficult it will be for him to take absolutist positions. The discourse around social media governance and accountability is not an easy one to address and will require a fine balancing act by governments and businesses.

The authors work at Koan Advisory Group, a technology policy consulting firm in New Delhi. Views are personal.

This article is part of ThePrint-Koan Advisory series that analyses emerging policies, laws and regulations in India’s technology sector. Read all the articles here.

(Edited by Prashant)

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