Social media companies that advertise themselves as “public places” should be subject to government regulation that helps reduce harm against users, says media expert Taylor Owen.
Last Monday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk reached a deal to buy Twitter for US$44 billion. The move will make the company private.
Musk, a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist, has yet to announce whether it will make any changes to the platform’s rules. Twitter has come under fire in recent years for increased content moderation and the banning of high-profile figures, including former US President Donald Trump.
“Free speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital public square where issues vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said Monday in a statement posted on Twitter.
Increasingly, governments are looking to regulate the tech giants behind platforms like Twitter and Facebook. In April, the European Union has reached a historic agreement to combat hate speech, misinformation and other harmful content on social media.
Owen, a member of the expert panel that advises the Canadian government on online safety and the regulation of harmful content, said that if Musk’s Twitter deal goes through, he could face a backlash from the public. regulators around the world.
Owen is the director of the Center for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University and he spoke with Cross Country Record producer Abby Plener. Here is part of that conversation.
What do we know so far and what are some of the remaining questions?
The biggest question that lingers is whether this will actually pass. So I think it’s still far from certain. It must pass [U.S. Federal Trade Commission] approval, likely, around antitrust grounds and media consolidation issues. It is an open question how the [U.S.] the government will respond.
We can speculate on his financial interest in doing so. In the past, billionaires wanted to control the media. It’s not new. But perhaps there is a financial interest for his companies to control this means of communication.
But the other element is how he talks about free speech. And he’s kind of aligned with this community of people who take very absolutist lines about what free speech should look like online. A lot of this is a response to some of the more reasonable, I think, moderation policies that Twitter, Facebook, and others have in place to make their spaces safer.
So if that’s what he thinks, that this place needs less guardrails and less moderation, then I think Twitter could become a much more toxic place.
Obviously, part of this conversation is a kind of dialogue about what needs to be fixed. [at] Twitter. If you had to diagnose Twitter problems, what would your diagnosis be?
The main challenge with Twitter is that it’s calibrated for speed, for virality, and for engagement. And he’s immensely good at those things. Thus, a single comment from a single person can easily, if it hits the right tone and the right audience, be seen by millions of people. And that’s a really powerful thing.
The challenge is that the calibration of engagement and emotional reaction – and sometimes anger and frustration – leads to more division in our public debate. It’s not aligned with, in any way, a healthy democratic discourse.
So I think Twitter, to their credit, kind of tried to change that calibration – to add more content moderation around harmful but maybe not illegal speech, to bring more transparency to the platform so so more people can see how it works.
Slowly they did things to make their platform a little less toxic, a little less racist, a little less divisive. But [Musk is] threatening to back out and that’s a challenge. And if he does, then the question is who sets the rules of engagement? And in my opinion, it should be democratic governments.
There may be harmful forms of speech that are not illegal that we should seek to minimize in a democratic society. It will be up to the governments to do so. And if [Musk] remove the Twitter guardrails, which seems quite likely, I think this will accelerate the government’s desire to enter this space. And there are a lot of things that governments can do to improve that space, I think.
I read your article in the Globe [and Mail] and you said that regulation can promote freedom of expression. Why do you feel this way?
Freedom of expression is not just the right to say things. It is also the right to feel safe in the public sphere by saying things…. What has ended up happening in the nature of our digital platforms is that the voices of people who harass, abuse and troll have been privileged over the rights of the people they kick off those platforms.
And so make a place safer – have better rules around this stuff, [whether] it’s racist or toxic speech, or trolling or abuse – can actually create a space where more people can talk and feel safe rather than fewer.
And so that’s been a real motivation for democratic governments to enter that space, I think responsibly, whether it’s the EU or the UK or Australia, all of which have new rules in place on how platforms should deal with harmful speech in their societies. And I think they did.
They are often, in a way, criticized by these platforms as being against free speech, but I think it’s the exact opposite. I think they’re trying to make sure the public square remains open to anyone who wants to talk, not just the loudest, or the most aggressive, or the toughest, or the most effective toy with the algorithms, or who buys which ads to target with the most money.
Canada is figuring it out right now. I’m involved in this process with the government, so I have my biases here, but I think we’re late for this conversation in Canada and the government got it really wrong in its last attempt last year on how to do it. But they’re coming now, and they seem likely to come up with something a lot like what the EU just did.
Some people might just see this as a corporate story. Why should the average person who may not even use these platforms necessarily care about the ownership structure behind them and how they are regulated?
Whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat or whatever — whatever the next platform — that’s where a lot of our public democratic discourse takes place.
It is where, increasingly, we learn about the world, where we get our facts about others, where we learn about societies, where we communicate with other groups in society.
And so the way information flows there is really important to our democratic society. We need to have an agreed information base in a democracy for this to work. That’s why we protected the free press.
How do you govern without limiting speech, and how do you govern in a way that promotes free speech and encourages more people to speak, not less, but changes the incentives so that harmful speech is diminished?
As the Twitter ownership conversation continues, what do you think Canadian politicians should be thinking about as this deal progresses?
Interestingly, Thierry Breton is responsible for this file for the EU and it was he who pushed their approach to governance here. He said, look, Musk can do whatever he wants, but he will have to respect European law.
Whether it’s cars or social media, any business operating in Europe must comply with our rules – regardless of their involvement.
Mr. Musk knows this well.
He knows the European automotive rules, and will quickly adapt to the Digital Services Act.#DSA
So if we have a law that says you have to do risk assessments on your products to show they’re not harming European citizens, it doesn’t matter who the CEO is or what the ownership structure of Twitter is.
So if Elon Musk is making Twitter more toxic, he still has to abide by Canadian law. I think that only increases the need for us to govern this space in a way that we choose as a democratic country. If Twitter wants to operate in Canada, it will have to comply with Canadian law.
If we want to prioritize product safety over virality [and] commitment to speak, it is our right to do so.
Written by Jason Vermes. Interview conducted by Abby Plener. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.