How Congress Can Prevent Elon Musk from Turning Twitter Back Into an Unfettered Disinformation Machine

Over the weekend, a story came out of Brussels that many may have missed. The twenty-seven member states of the European Union reached an agreement on a new law requiring big online platforms, including social-media companies, to police hate speech and disinformation more effectively. Under the E.U.’s Digital Services Act, European governments now have the power to ask Web platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to remove any content that promotes terrorism, hate speech, child sexual abuse, or commercial scams. The platforms will also be obliged to prevent the “manipulation of services having an impact on democratic processes and public security.”

“The time of big online platforms behaving like they are ‘too big to care’ is coming to an end,” Thierry Breton, the E.U.’s commissioner for the internal market, declared. If the European authorities see a surge of online disinformation during a crisis, such as the ongoing war in Ukraine, they will be able to order social-media companies to take “proportionate and effective measures” to counter the threat. Although the new E.U. agreement stops short of treating online platforms the same as traditional publishers (which may be legally liable for intentionally false content about specific individuals and companies), it will force them to provide users with “an easy and effective way” to flag harmful content, so that it can be removed. The platforms will also be subject to annual audits by European regulators on their efforts to counter disinformation and other abuses. Platforms that violate the new law can be fined billions of dollars, and repeat offenders may even be banned from doing business in the E.U.

Ironically, the E.U. members adopted the new measures only days before the board of directors of Twitter entered into an agreement to sell the company to Elon Musk, a self-styled defender of free speech and a vigorous opponent of government regulation, for about forty-four billion dollars. “The proposed transaction will deliver a substantial cash premium, and we believe it is the best path forward for Twitter’s stockholders,” Bret Taylor, Twitter’s chairman, who is also the co-C.E.O. of the software company Salesforce, said in a statement.

Evidently, financial considerations overrode any reservations that the members of Twitter’s board may have had about selling the company to Musk, who has frequently criticized its management and demanded changes in how the site operates. Musk’s bid of fifty-four dollars and twenty cents a share represents a premium of close to forty per cent over the firm’s stock price on April 1st, immediately before he disclosed that he had acquired a nine-per-cent stake in the company. But, even though the financial logic of the deal is straightforward, the implications of Musk taking control of Twitter are, from a broader perspective, potentially highly problematic, especially since he still hasn’t answered some pressing questions about his intentions for the site, including whether he plans to allow Donald Trump back onto it.

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In a statement on Monday, Musk said that he wanted “to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.” These aren’t necessarily bad ideas. Allowing users to edit tweets and authenticating their identities could conceivably improve Twitter. The idea of opening up Twitter’s algorithm also sounds benign, although it could clash with the goal of defeating the bots, because once the spammers know Twitter’s formula for serving up tweets they may be better able to game it.

But none of Musk’s suggestions addressed the fundamental issue of which approach Twitter will now take toward content moderation. Will the company maintain the heavy investments in artificial intelligence and human monitors that it has made in recent years? Will it expand these monitoring efforts as demanded by the new European law? Or will it move in the other direction, dismantling them and allowing the return of former users it had suspended or banned, particularly Trump?

Based on the signs so far, the answer to the last question is yes, Trump and others who have been banned will return. Even though Trump currently insists that he won’t return even if he is invited—he has his own social-media app to promote—many of his supporters are openly celebrating the news of Musk’s takeover. During a staff meeting on Monday, a Twitter employee asked Parag Agrawal, the firm’s chief executive, whether Trump would be allowed back. “We constantly evolve our policies,” Agrawal replied. “Once the deal closes, we don’t know what direction this company will go in.”

Based on some of his public statements, Musk seems intent on taking Twitter back to the not at all distant era when social media was a free-for-all. “I do think that we want to be just very reluctant to delete things,” he said, in an interview earlier this month. If Twitter does go in this direction, it could encounter pushback from corporate advertisers that don’t like being associated with disinformation, incitement, and controversy. Musk has suggested that Twitter should grow its subscriptions base to become less dependent on advertisers, but it’s not clear how many people would pay to use the site, especially if its contents are largely unfiltered.

Musk has also said that his pursuit of Twitter is driven by the desire to protect free speech and “help freedomn in the world” rather than to make money. These are fine-sounding words, but it sometimes seems as if Musk’s notion of free speech amounts to attacking and lampooning anybody who challenges him, including the financial regulators who charged him with securities fraud and fined him twenty million dollars for tweeting misleading information in 2018 about a possible buyout of Tesla. “Even as Twitter’s board on Monday was debating his offer . . . Mr. Musk was setting the tone for his leadership by tweeting that Securities and Exchange Commission officials were ‘shameless puppets,’ ” Greg Bensinger, a member of the Times’ editorial board, noted. Last week, Musk used his Twitter account, which has about eighty-five million followers, to try fat-shaming Bill Gates, whom he also accused of speculating against Tesla’s stock.

In a column for the Guardian, Robert Reich, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, argued that Musk’s real goal in purchasing Twitter is to create a position for himself where he is unaccountable to anything, from laws to market competition. Whether that’s entirely accurate or not, the pending takeover provides yet another confirmation that Congress needs to treat the big online platforms like the social utilities they are, and regulate them. A first step would be to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, on a bipartisan basis, in January. This legislation would prohibit dominant platforms, such as Amazon and Google, from exploiting their market power to boost their own products by discriminating against their competitors.

Regulating content in a manner consistent with protecting free speech may be a trickier proposition, but the E.U. has just provided a road map for how it could be done: by putting the onus on social-media companies to monitor and remove harmful content, and hit them with big fines if they don’t. The Digital Services Act is “nothing short of a paradigm shift in tech regulation,” Ben Scott, the executive director of the advocacy group Reset, told the Associated Press. “It’s the first major attempt to set rules and standards for algorithmic systems in digital media markets.”

Musk would surely object to the U.S. adopting a regulatory system like the one that the Europeans are drawing up, but that’s too bad. The health of the Internet—and, most important, democracy—is too significant to leave to one man, no matter how rich he is.

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