Life Tech ‘Hard line on free speech’: How Elon Musk could shape the future of Twitter

‘Hard line on free speech’: How Elon Musk could shape the future of Twitter

Some Twitter users may be charged fees under plans being mulled by potential new owner Elon Musk Photo: TND/Getty
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk is now the largest shareholder in Twitter after publicly questioning the platform’s commitment to free speech, but experts say users will see little change to the service.

On Monday, it was revealed Mr Musk had bought a 9.2 per cent stake in Twitter worth about $US3 billion ($4 billion) – prompting the site’s share price to immediately jump more than 27 per cent.

On Tuesday, the social media giant announced it would formally ask Mr Musk to join its board.

Mr Musk bought the shares on March 14 before posting a Twitter poll on March 25 asking users whether they believed the platform was “rigorously adhering” to the principle that “free speech is essential to a functioning democracy”.

Mr Musk urged users to “vote carefully” as “the consequences of this poll will be important”.

Public reaction to his investment has varied from excitement to condemnation over possible changes to the platform.

But Griffith University senior lecturer David Tuffley said although Mr Musk had bought some influence over the company he had not bought a final say.

“As the largest shareholder, he does have the ability to phone up the chief executive and have a frank discussion about things that might be troubling him, but I don’t think it gives him ultimate power over what is published on that platform,” Dr Tuffley said.

The board appointment will also potentially block chances of a takeover bid from Mr Musk as he cannot own more than 14.9 per cent of Twitter’s stock either as an individual shareholder or as a member of a group as long as he is on the company’s board.

Pressure for more free speech

Queensland University of Technology Digital Media Research Centre professor Jean Burgess said Mr Musk would use his expanded influence to advocate “a very hard line on free speech”.

Twitter has previously been criticised for removing posts and introducing measures such as labels, warnings and distribution restrictions.

The social media platform was also accused of restricting free speech after permanently suspending the account of former US president Donald Trump.

On March 27 (Australia time), Mr Musk tweeted that if Twitter failed to uphold free speech it would be undermining democracy as the site now served “as the de facto public town square”.

Later that day, he said he was giving “serious thought” to setting up his own social media company.

But Dr Tuffley expects Mr Musk to settle for gaining influence over Twitter – where Mr Musk already has more than 80 million followers – as building a platform to rival the social media giant would be no easy feat.

Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal has also implied he is already working with Mr Musk, telling users in a reply to the Tesla CEO on Twitter that the consequences of his ‘edit button’ poll would be “important”.

Mr Agrawal used the same wording as Mr Musk when he asked users about their views on Twitter’s stance on free speech.

What this means for users

Dr Tuffley said Mr Musk will likely try to moderate Twitter’s policies so that a wider range of views can be expressed on the platform.

“Twitter has been criticised for being more prohibitive of right-wing views than they are of left-wing views,” he said.

“I don’t think it indicates that Musk is a right-leaning person, but he would like to be able to tweet what he likes in the way that he likes to do it.

“He probably foresees that under the current management regime that he might come up against some problems in the future with that.”

Dr Tuffley said if Mr Musk is successful in promoting free speech on Twitter he could end up exposing users to a wider range of views.

But he doesn’t expect Twitter’s “winning formula” to change much.

“Not just Elon Musk, but others would recognise that to mess with that formula would be counterproductive in terms of Twitter’s viability and profitability,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Burgess said it’s too early to say what changes Twitter might undergo, but it was concerning that power and wealth was able to influence an important platform for public communication.

“This is not out of step with historical moves by powerful people to buy media influence,” she added.

“It’s just a new media system, and a new model.”

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