Technology

How much should we fear Elon Musk?

PUBLISHED
May 01, 2022


KARACHI:

Elon Musk’s successful $44 Billion bid for Twitter is the latest in a series of events that reveal how deeply entrenched the social media industrial complex has become. Beyond day-to-day lives, platforms with global reach seemingly place immense power in the hands of the few, sometimes eccentric, individuals who control them.

With Twitter, already under the spotlight with a sitting US President being banned on the platform just a little over a year back, Musk’s purchase has added another dimension to an already complex discourse seeking the ‘perfect balance’ between freedom, safety and authenticity on social media.

The speculation so far around the future of Twitter is along the lines of an informational dystopia after Musk made it apparent that his goal was to foster free speech on the platform. While some including die hard followers of the tech mogul would try to blanket these fears under ‘woke overreaction’ and label those against his ‘crusade against censorship’ as supporters of ‘cancel culture’, there is some nuance that to an extent justify this anxiety.

Heading into uncertainty

Speaking to The Express Tribune, digital expert and founder of Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) Asad Beyg outlined just where some of the anxiety regarding Musk’s takeover was stemming from. One main reason, according to him, was simple uncertainty.

“While the deal has been finalised, the actual purchase of Twitter will take six months to complete,” Beyg pointed out. As such it may take quite some time to figure out which of Musk’s intentions holds substance and which is mere bluster.

Another reason why so many seem afraid of Musk is that his interest in businesses is either of a superficial nature or targets the elite of the elite, the expert and activist pointed out. “Take Tesla, for instance. The common person cannot buy one – buying a Tesla is a right of passage for the moneyed. SpaceX, similarly, is not looking to benefit the average person,” he shared. “

“Add to these Elon Musk’s own history, which is quite murky and even questionable. There is a lack of transparency about where Musk has gotten the funds to complete the purchase. In fact, not much is clear about his wealth in general.”

Beyond questions about money, Beyg also brought up Musk’s own behaviour in the public spotlight and social media. “There was a case, for instance, where he personally cancelled the Tesla order of a vlogger who had criticised him. Other times, it appears he intentionally tries to trigger or get a rise out of certain people. What will someone like him do with total control over Twitter?”

One thing that we already know will happen is switching Twitter from a public to a private company, Beyg pointed out. “This is something Musk did when he took over Tesla as well.” By taking Twitter private, he will make the platform immune from the legal protections that apply to a public company, he added. “This is too much power for one person.”

There are also questions as to what implications the sources of Musk’s funds may pose for the social media giant. “Regarding the funds Musk is using to purchase Twitter, only $21 billion of the total $44 billion is from his own wealth. The rest are loans from banks,” Beyg shared. “Now banks only get involved in a takeover if there is revenue generation on the table. When the purchase is complete, Twitter will have to generate many times the loaned amount,” he warned.

“How can Twitter generate revenue? Musk spoke about authenticating every human – will this take the form of monetary authentication? Will he charge a subscription fee for Twitter spaces,” the MMfD founder asked.

“Those of us who use Twitter so much do so because it is free. But will people pay to use Twitter? That seems unlikely. Would Musk then sell user data or profiling, etc.?”

Speaking about Musk’s intended plan to authenticate all humans, Beyg noted that Twitter will have to create some metric to do so. “If that metric is not your national identity card, it will have to be biometric,” he said. “All of this is fuelling uncertainty.” He added that getting rid of bots is also easier said than done. “If you are cracking down on spambots, what qualifies as spam? If I am a supporter of a certain party, I may make 900 tweets a day for no monetary gain. Is that still spam?”

More rhetoric than substance

While a vocal Twitter user base, particularly in the West, has been predicting doomsday scenarios in the aftermath of Musk’s takeover of Twitter, that impression is far more from monolithic. Talking to The Express Tribune, digital researcher Daniel Konikoff pointed out that even from a left-of-centre vantage point, the reaction to the seismic development is a bit of a mix.

“You certainly have a contingent of folks – a rather far-left leaning contingent – that says this is very bad and cite Musk’s own stance of being a ‘free-speech’ absolutist’ as a harbinger of worse things to come,” he admitted. “But you also see a lot of folks writing for outlets like The Atlantic or BBC who are taking a more measured approach and are saying ‘lets wait and see’.”

For Konikoff, the most interesting aspect of the reaction to Musk’s takeover is that no one knows for sure what the billionaire will do. “We know he has hinted at how content moderation policies will change under his ownership. We know where he supposedly stands on free speech,” he noted. “But he has not actually said anything concrete and without any tangible policy or concrete measures being outlined, it is very hard to say what he is going to do.”

 

The researcher also discussed how differing contexts on managing the role and operation of social media platforms may stifle or dampen whatever Musk intends to do with content moderation on Twitter. “Unlike North America, where the government is rather vague on regulation, the European Union through the proposed Digital Services Act (DSA) has has tried to outline how platforms like Twitter must handle hate speech, misinformation and content moderation,” he said. “EU representatives, for instance, have already told Musk you need to be mindful of what the DSA states. They are in a way getting ahead of his takeover and any intentions he might have for the platform.”

Konikoff added that even if Musk brings on a relaxed content moderation regime, the lesson that 30 years of the Internet teaches us is that there is only so much you can do without governance. “At a certain point platforms default to a certain level of governance otherwise people start leaving,” he said. The researcher pointed out that unlike other nations where Twitter already seems to be used as a tool to spread hate speech or coordinated violence, in the United States at least that role has been played to greater extent by other alternative platforms. “In North America, the biggest example of a social media platform being used to coordinate an attempt against government was the storming of Capitol Hill,” Konikoff said. “Interestingly that action was coordinated on apps like Parler and Gab, which position themselves as alternatives to Twitter where you’re allowed to say anything you want.”

Free speech and the law

“By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people,” Musk had clarified in a tweet after grilled on his ‘idea of free speech.

The problem here is that viewing freedom of speech under the context of law, essentially negates it entirely. This may not seem apparent if cyberspace is perceived under a Euro-centric blanket but as one goes across the rest of the world wherein many regimes even the democratic ones succumb to authoritarian tendencies.

Take for instance, Twitter’s back and forth with the Indian government last year over the farmer’s protests. The company was initially directed by the government to suspend accounts of protestors, which it gleefully did. However following backlash, Twitter reinstated some accounts, after which the Indian government, issued new decree that required social media companies to share private conversations of users with officials, with respect to the content it deems illegal.

That being said, while Musk possibly pandering to an ‘authoritarian law’ that goes against the very concept of freedom is somewhat of a speculation at this point, it should be noted that the company had indeed suppressed ‘dissent’ when approached by the government of one of its largest markets. In Musk’s defense, he has gone on record to talk about increasing the transparency of the platform. One way he plans to do it is by making the automated facets of the content moderation mechanism Twitter employs public. In an earlier TedTalk he had suggested that the algorithms by which Twitter detects objectionable content could be made available on software hosting platforms such GitHub. This way users themselves could ascertain, to what degree the code is justified.

Generally, Twitter’s content moderation has been called out for its imperfection. The policies and standards by which content is deemed ‘harmful’ and subsequently taken of by moderators, lacks a nuance that varies on a cultural level. What might seem as an exhibition of freedom from one framework could result in actual violence in some cultures. At present it doesn’t seem as though the company has even acknowledged certain dilemmas.

At the same time, ‘less moderation’ as Musk suggests is far from a solution. Twitter’s content moderation albeit imperfect, has been for a large part been successful in curbing violence and hateful elements in the form of coordinated hate campaigns ever since the Gamer Gate scandal.

Perhaps the idea of a single person being in control of the flow of information on such a major scale is what has become the major source of concern. After the deal is finalized, Musk is said to take the company private with his own board in place. This would render the platform being open to relatively less scrutiny as before. While it could be argued that Musk’s recent eccentric behavior, could very well be theatrics, he has gained notoriety as an unstable actor one example being his influence on the crypto market with respect to the dodge coin. Additionally whether he is truthful about the purchase not being driven by economics or not, Tesla’s dependency on China could very well result in Twitter being held hostage.

The globalist illusion

Those in the West fearful of what Twitter may become under Elon Musk have warned that torrents of hate speech, misinformation, external meddling and coordinated attempts to influence governments and democracy may be unleashed should the billionaire relax content moderation policies. Interestingly enough, for countries like Pakistan and others in the Global South, these challenges have long plagued their social media experience.

“The fears sparked by Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter among users in the West may be prove to be true in time, but for users in countries like ours, many of those fears are our lived experience already,” underscored lawyer and head of Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) Nighat Dad. “These platforms are not perfect for the audience in the Global South.”

Dad acknowledged that fears stemming from Elon Musk’s takeover, particularly in Western users, had some truth, but felt that the platform was unlikely to head south completely. “Overseeing Twitter would not be a one-man show. There will be a governance model in place,” she said.

That said, she pointed out that the core structural problem with platforms like Twitter and Facebook is that the people who design their products do so while taking into account the contextual realities of their own environment. “A white developer in the West will base the design on their assumptions. The original designers fail to take into account that this would one day be a global platform for freedom of speech,” she stressed. “Until the structural problems inherent in these platforms are fixed, they will remain faulty.”

 

Both Dad and researcher Konikoff agreed that the globalism of social media platforms is an illusion to some extent. “When they were developed, the people who made them perhaps did not anticipate how global they would become,” the DRF founder said. “Still, I believe when they did become global and when other platforms become global in the future, the responsibility to ensure they cater to different people and communities around the world appropriately is on those who make them,” she added.

“The illusion of globalism is spot on when describing these platforms. I never see, for instance, topics trending in Pakistan. That is not built into my online experience,” Konikoff acknowledged. “It is interesting to question what happens when an app built in one country moves to another. How do an app’s policies interact with a country’s policies?”

“The idea of an online United Nations may sound very funny but it may not be altogether misguided. If the Internet is going to create this global connection, there needs to be the establishment of something more concrete to handle challenges that may arise across borders,” the Toronto-based researcher added.

The need for effective oversight

Konikoff cited the example of Facebook’s oversight board as something that could be a workable solution to tackling challenges of content moderation across nations and cultural contexts. “I don’t know if that’s an effective tool but on the surface it seems more substantial than a content moderation feeder. That could be something that further democratises these apps in a more meaningful way,” he said.

Dad, who is a member of that board, agreed that a self-regulatory mechanism, like the one in place at Facebook, could be a template for other online platforms with a global audience to follow. Pertaining to the Global South audience and Twitter’s future, the digital rights activist said, it would be really important to see what things Musk takes forward. “Will he use all that labour done by experts and activists from the Global South in actionable terms,” she wondered. 

Konikoff, however, voiced pessimism. “Just because there’s a change of leadership doesn’t mean that all these smaller markets are suddenly going to get more attention,” he admitted. “If these platforms are already rife with coordinated hate speech in the Global South, another eccentric tech billionaire who comes in is unlikely to change that.” 

For Dad and Konikoff, the European Union’s DSA was potentially a template to look at. “The European Commission’s propose Digital Services Act has already outlined a framework for oversight bodies. If this can be implemented for the EU, then why not for the rest of the world,” asked the DRF head. 

She added that besides regulation, for platforms like Twitter to cater properly to a global user base, there has to be independent mechanism or body to oversee how they function. “If the algorithms are biased, the Global North versus Global South disparity in online experiences will persist. Digital human rights must be at the heart of their platform design,” she stressed. 

Dad also pointed towards the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence as a useful tool. “Social media and big tech firms should have independent mechanisms to ensure decisions on issues like disinformation, algorithm bias, regional languages and world leader participations are not taken by one person or one group of individuals,” she exhorted. 

“Diversity matters a lot but diversity without power means nothing. You have to consider how much weight your safety partners have in discussions – they undertake free labour on behalf of a platform, essentially doing the platform’s job. How much is that intellectual labour utilised? How much of it is translated into action?” 

Speaking generally about the global social media landscape, Dad mentioned that activists like her “have been raising issues and have undertaken a lot of free labour to try and make these platforms better.” That input, she added, was sometimes heard and sometimes not. “The labour we have performed has hardly translated in addressing the challenges posed by social media platforms in the Global South.”

Challenges going forward

Dad admitted that navigating cross-border digital spaces is easier said than done. “Some governments are more democratic than others. Some situations and national environments can be very difficult for international platforms to navigate,” she said. “It is easier for Twitter or Facebook to open an office in a country with greater freedom and better checks and balances. We cannot neglect the fact that platforms also have to abide by their parent jurisdiction. This can make it very difficult to operate globally in a fair and equitable manner.” She also acknowledged the additional threat posed by the rise of populism in both the Global North and Global South.

MMfD founder Beyg seconded that opinion; “Social media violence has become a lived reality in the West as well,” he said. “We can see various examples such as campaigns against migrants, Islamophobia or external influence in the democratic process.” He suggested that perhaps the fears from Elon Musk’s takeover are more intense in the West because “a greater part of their lived reality is online now.”

(WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM ATHER AHMED IN BOSTON)


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