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How Elon Musk Might Shift Twitter Content Moderation

 |  May 2, 2022

By: Mark MacCarthy (TechTank)

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter raises the issue of social media content moderation in an especially urgent form. Despite the regulations looming in the United Kingdom and the European Union, to which Musk’s Twitter must conform, no legal requirement will prevent Musk from running Twitter according to whatever editorial policy he chooses to adopt. It’s his candy store.

How is this possible? Can it really be true that the content moderation policies of such a powerful forum for public discourse should depend on the whims of its new billionaire owner? Evan Greer, a political activist with Fight for the Future, speaks for a lot of us when she says, “If we want to protect free speech online, then we can’t live in a world where the richest person on Earth can just purchase a platform that millions of people depend on and then change the rules to his liking.”

But this is the way television, newspapers, and radio function in liberal democracies. The owners of media outlets determine the political line of the news stories and commentary they distribute. When NBC, CNN, ABC, or the New York Post change owners, as they have frequently in the past, their new owners dictate operational rules and editorial policy. Social media is media, and the same ownership prerogatives apply. Content moderation is their editorial policy, and it is determined by their owners. No liberal democracy will mandate what owners can do or what their editorial policy should be.

Of course, certain speech is unlawful, and increasingly social media companies will be expected to keep their systems free of illegal material. The UK and the EU create new liability regimes for illegal speech in their pending legislation, and Musk has promised to comply with these legal requirements.

But most of the hate speech, misinformation, and racist invective on social media are legal both here in the U.S. and in Europe. Musk will have to abide by the new EU and UK laws that relate to harmful but legal speech; that will mean more risk assessments, transparency reports, audits, access to data for researchers, publication of content moderation standards, and due process requirements…