Jean Burgess, Professor and Affiliate Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Choice-Making and Society, the Queensland College of Know-how.
The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, appears set to buy the social media platform Twitter for round USD 44bn. He says he’s not doing it to earn money (which is sweet, as a result of Twitter has hardly ever turned a revenue), however moderately as a result of, amongst different issues, he believes in free speech.
Twitter might sound an odd place to make a stand totally free speech. The service has round 217 million day by day customers, solely a fraction of the two.8 billion who log in every day to one of many Meta household (Fb, Instagram, and WhatsApp).
However the platform performs a disproportionately massive function in society. It’s important infrastructure for journalists and teachers. It has been used to coordinate emergency info, to construct up communities of solidarity and protest, and to share international occasions and media rituals – from presidential elections to mourning superstar deaths (and unpredictable moments on the Oscars).
Twitter’s distinctive function is a results of the best way it combines private media use with public debate and dialogue. However this can be a fragile and risky combine – and one which has change into more and more troublesome for the platform to handle.
In keeping with Musk, “Twitter is the digital city sq., the place issues important to the way forward for humanity are debated”. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, in approving Musk’s takeover, went additional, claiming “Twitter is the closest factor we have now to a worldwide consciousness”.
Are they proper? Does it make sense to think about Twitter as a city sq.? And if that’s the case, do we would like the city sq. to be managed by libertarian billionaires?
What’s a city sq. for?
As my coauthor Nancy Baym and I’ve detailed in our e book Twitter: A Biography, Twitter’s tradition emerged from the interactions between a fledgling platform with shaky infrastructure, an avid group of customers who made it work for them, and the media who present in it an infinite supply of reports and different content material.
Is it a city sq.? When Musk and another commentators use this time period, I believe they’re invoking the normal thought of the “public sphere”: an actual or digital place the place everybody can argue rationally about issues, and everyone seems to be made conscious of everybody else’s arguments.
Some critics suppose we should always do away with the concept of the “digital city sq.” altogether, or not less than suppose extra deeply about the way it would possibly reinforce present divisions and hierarchies.
I believe the concept of the “digital city sq.” will be a lot richer and extra optimistic than this, and that early Twitter was a fairly good, if flawed, instance of it.
If I consider my very own very best “city sq.”, it may need market stalls, quiet corners the place you’ll be able to have private chats with pals, alleyways the place unusual (however authorized!) area of interest pursuits will be pursued, a playground for the youngsters, some roving entertainers – and, certain, perhaps a central agora with a soapbox that folks can collect round when there’s some challenge all of us want to listen to or discuss. That, in actual fact, could be very a lot what early Twitter was like for me and my pals and colleagues.
I believe Musk and his legion of followers have one thing totally different in thoughts: a free speech free-for-all, a nightmarish city sq. the place everyone seems to be shouting on a regular basis, and anybody who doesn’t prefer it simply stays house.
The free-for-all is over
Lately, the growing prevalence of disinformation and abuse on social media, in addition to their rising energy over the media setting on the whole, has prompted governments all over the world to intervene.
In Australia alone, we have now seen the Information Media Bargaining Code and the ACCC’s Digital Platform Providers Inquiry asking harder questions, making calls for, and exerting extra stress on platforms.
Maybe extra consequentially for international gamers like Twitter, the European Union is about to introduce a Digital Providers Act which goals “to create a safer digital area by which the basic rights of all customers of digital providers are protected”.
This may prohibit dangerous promoting and “darkish patterns”, and require extra cautious (and sophisticated) content material moderation, notably within the bigger corporations. It should additionally require platforms to be extra clear about how they use algorithms to filter and curate the content material their customers see and listen to.
Such strikes are only the start of states imposing each limits and constructive duties on platform corporations.
So whereas Musk will seemingly push the boundaries of what he can get away with, the concept of a worldwide platform that permits utterly unfettered “free speech” (even throughout the limits of “the legislation”, as he tweeted earlier in the present day) is an entire fantasy.
What are the options?
If for-profit social media providers are run not within the public curiosity, however to serve the wants of advertisers – or, even worse, the whims of billionaires – then what are the options?
Small different social media platforms (corresponding to Diaspora and Mastodon), constructed on decentralised infrastructure and collective possession, have been round for some time, however they haven’t actually taken off but. Designing and attracting customers to viable options at a worldwide scale is admittedly onerous.
Proposals for utterly separate, publicly supported social media platforms created by non-profits and/or governments, even when we may get them to work collectively, are unlikely to work. They might be vastly costly, and can finally encounter comparable governance challenges to the present platforms, if they’re to realize any scale and to function throughout nationwide boundaries.
After all, it’s nonetheless doable Musk will uncover working Twitter is far tougher than it appears. The corporate is to some extent accountable for what’s printed on its platform, which implies it has no selection however to interact within the messy world of content material moderation, and balancing free speech with different considerations (and different human rights).
Whereas Musk’s different corporations (corresponding to Tesla) function in closely regulated environments already, the “international social media platform” enterprise is more likely to be way more complicated and difficult.
Twitter has already been taking a look at methods out of this case. Since 2019, it has been investing in an initiative known as Bluesky, which goals to develop an open, decentralized commonplace for social media which may very well be utilized by a number of platforms together with Twitter itself.
Fb’s try to maneuver into the “metaverse” is the same maneuver: keep away from having to take care of content material and restrictions by constructing the (proprietary) infrastructure for others to create purposes and social areas.
To check out one other “blue-sky” thought for only a second: if the present company giants had been to vacate the social media area, it’d go away room for a publicly funded and ruled choice.
In a really perfect world, public service media organizations would possibly collaborate to construct worldwide social media providers utilizing shared infrastructure and protocols that allow their providers to speak to and share content material with one another. Or they may construct out new social media providers on high of the web we have now now – requiring the industrial gamers to make sure their platforms are interoperable can be a vital a part of that.
After all, both method, this mannequin would finally require taxpayer assist and severe, long-term funding. If that had been to occur, we would have one thing even higher than a digital city sq.: a public service web.