Social networks: how far does freedom go? the case of twitter

Twitter was bought by Elon Musk, a compulsive entrepreneur who created Paypal (online payment), then Tesla (electric cars) and finally SpaceX (rockets), for an “indecent” sum of 44 billion dollars. Indecent, not only because it is abnormally high in terms of the company’s results, but also because this acquisition demonstrates the almost limitless means of some people in the world.

The main problem that this redemption poses is, in an added and not new way, the relationship with freedom, with truth, with intimacy. Twitter today has 340 million users, which is just a fraction of the number of Meta users (Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp). But, on the one hand, Meta like Youtube (Google) have stricter moderation policies without, by far, being perfect and, on the other hand, these other social networks are less intertwined with traditional media. We note that Twitter has become an essential means of communication and influence for politicians and personalities. Journalists take their sources there without moderation… and often without verification.

The most striking novelty is Elon Musk’s stated desire to drastically limit moderation, whether it concerns hateful, offensive or “fake news” content. For him, fake news does not exist. The truth does not exist. If someone says that the earth is flat, he is right. There will be enough people to explain and try to prove otherwise. Twitter becomes the libertarian tool according to its new owner’s wishes.

Revenues coming mainly from advertising, we can also think that power will be given to advertisers or “partners”. The fight has already begun with Apple threatening to pull both its Twitter advertising and the Twitter app from the Appstore, which would render Twitter unusable on iPhones and likely send the company into bankruptcy. We can also think that the one who will really have the power will be Elon Musk himself, who, according to his convictions, will prohibit or modify the visibility of such and such a transmitter, or of such and such content. He also started by withdrawing some journalists who decided to publish their travels and therefore their place of residence.

Is this an asset or a disadvantage for democracy? If we refer to the Arab Spring, many commentators have praised the positive role played by social networks in this aspiration for peoples’ freedom. If we refer to the attack on the Capitol, we cannot say that these networks are always at the service of democracy. We can also think that this capacity for expression reinforces the disaffection of the ballot boxes, the citizen judging himself more active with a Tweet read by thousands of people, than with an anonymous vote. We can also think that Twitter itself becomes a democratic tool when we see Elon Musk test his legitimacy there and obtain in a few days 17 million votes… who ask him to leave!

Is it an asset or a handicap for human development? Twitter is, evidently, a channel for accessing information and knowledge about man and his development. It is also a channel for disseminating news, good or bad, true or false, with the associated manipulation capabilities through the famous algorithms. It is a communication tool, which is also specific to man. But what makes this communication often tinged with hate, insult, contempt, violence.

These questions were already raised at the birth of the written press, radio or television. At each step, reading, listening, seeing, a level was surpassed. With interactivity, a new stage takes place. We are far from the “readers’ mail” that allowed some subscribers to express themselves in dailies or weeklies. We already knew that it was often the first section seen by readers. Today the president tweets, the pope tweets, the expert tweets, you or ma’am, everybody tweets too. Two ethical questions emerge:

  • on the one hand a total relativity, everything is the same, each one his own truth, it doesn’t matter
  • on the other hand, an inability to regulate the flow of violence

States are trying to provide answers, like the European Union and its “Digital Service Act”, but aren’t they always falling behind in the face of a technology whose pace of development is not that of politics? The providers themselves seem to be developing tools, but isn’t that giving them even more power?

Do we have any choice but education, which will take at best a generation before it has an effect? What will happen in the meantime?

Twitter does not create, by itself, the hatred and insults that are poured on it, at most it gives them a new echo and recreation. By wanting to regulate and moderate it, we can correct a symptom, but the heart of the matter will remain unchanged. Can we condemn the messenger without trying to understand the message?

Sergeant Thierry

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