Elon Musk, the free-speech crusader. At least that’s how he thinks of himself.
In reality, since Musk purchased Twitter for $44 billion last fall, users and brands have seen a rise in disinformation, trolls, neo-Nazis, far-right political leaders, hate speech, glitches and massive staff cuts –– all in the name of “free speech.”
And, for Musk, the battle continues.
Over the weekend, Twitter officially dropped out of following the European Union’s Code of Practice, a system aimed at preventing profiteering from disinformation and fake news, while supporting increased transparency of political advertising for major online platforms.
The Code follows the European Commission’s guidance of May 2021 and was devised by major online platforms, emerging and specialized platforms, advertisers, fact-checkers, and research and civil society organizations.
In the Commission’s original plan, internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said, “We need to rein in the infodemic and the diffusion of false information putting people’s life in danger,” urging “stronger commitments by online platforms, the entire advertising ecosystem and networks of fact-checkers” to destabilize disinformation as a source of revenue.
This past Saturday, Breton tweeted about Twitter leaving the Code, warning that Musk “can run but you can’t hide,” referencing further obligations the platform must legally comply with as a VLOP (“very large online platform”) under the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA).
“Our teams will be ready for enforcement,” Breton added.
The tweet, I’m sure, excited Musk, who may have an incessant urge to pick fights and cause chaos for chaos’s sake -- or may be just another billionaire in desperate need of attention. But, as the press has noted, this fight will be costly.
In August, platforms with over 45 million monthly active users in the EU, which Twitter has, must comply with the DSA’s rules. If Twitter fails to comply, the DSA can enforce penalties of up to 6% of the platform’s global annual turnover and block access to the entire region, which includes 440 million consumers.
That’s a lot to lose for Twitter, which already received warning signals from the EU. Shortly after Musk took over, the EU said Twitter had “huge work” to do with combating disinformation in order to avoid facing backlash from the DSA, and followed up again in February.
Which begs the question of whether Musk’s Twitter would be able to comply with the DSA even if it tried. It’s no secret that Musk has greatly reduced the platform’s staff, which includes the very moderators devoted to tackling disinformation.
According to a Wired report from November, after Musk bought Twitter and axed 7,500 full-time employees, “the team that took down toxic and fake content vanished,” which led to researchers being left in the lurch, with no one “responding to their reports of disinformation on the site.”
So maybe Musk’s ballsy move to tell the EU to take their disinformation policies and shove it is just the billionaire crusader continuing to hide anarchy behind a thin veil of “free speech,” biding time before the fines start rolling in.