November 28, 2023

Around six years ago, there was a rather lovely tequila bar just outside my then office. We liked this bar a great deal, because it was almost always empty and it became the focal point for gossip, intrigue and after-work drinks.

When, inevitably, it closed, I felt a sense of loss mixed with the knowledge that this could only be a good thing for my bank balance, my waistline and my liver.

I have a similar relationship with Twitter. Yes, I use it to discover any number of fascinating academic studies, interesting anecdotes and thoughtful people. But do I sometimes think it would be better for my productivity and good health if the social media platform were to be closed? Yes again.

I suspect many journalists feel the same way, which is why Twitter attracts an outsized amount of media commentary.

Unlike TikTok, or a slew of spaces used for gaming and esports, it is not host to a large number of young people. In terms of facilitating global communications, WhatsApp by itself, let alone the rest of the properties in the Meta empire, leaves Twitter in the shade. As a discovery engine, Twitter is more fun but less important globally than Google.

So in terms of its actual impact, does it matter all that much that Elon Musk has announced sweeping changes to Twitter’s terms of service that appear to have more to do with what personally offends him than any reasonable argument about what is and isn’t legitimate speech?

Not really. It’s Musk’s bar and he can do what he likes with it, as much as that makes his previous statements about free speech look ridiculous. The swift emergence of many Twitter-like social media platforms shows that aspects of the site are fairly easy to replicate.

The suspension of Musk’s critics is certainly troubling behaviour from someone who claims to aspire to turn Twitter into an “everything app”. And suggestions that he might attempt to limit the ability of competitors to promote themselves on the platform were similarly alarming for someone who claimed they wanted it to be not only a public sphere but a marketplace in its own right.

But it doesn’t matter all that much if you can’t tweet freely about Musk somewhere where the only service provided is the sending of tweets. It is obviously offensive on free speech grounds but similar conditions are enforced by moderators across different discussion forums.

Just as the owner of a Doctor Who forum might prohibit anyone who claims Star Trek is the better TV show, a Musk-owned subject forum need not be one with the right to criticise Musk. It is only a problem if Twitter becomes the everything app Musk claims to want or the “global public sphere” he has talked of it becoming.

And Musk-like behaviour would matter a great deal more if it were taking place on another social media platform with a larger reach and a more important function.

His actions are, therefore, a useful test case and thought experiment for states: do they have the right tools, and the required level of technical understanding, to regulate not just Twitter but the big and actually globally important social networks?

It would be much more alarming if Google, say, were to deprioritise the ability to search freely available flight data than it is that Musk removed a Twitter account posting publicly available information about his own private plane. And it would be a cause for greater concern if WhatsApp prevented the free sharing of information about potential competitors.

The good news for regulators is that placing hard limits on your competitors’ ability to advertise to your customers is already illegal in the US and the EU if you have a dominant market position. As a stress test of whether they have the right approach and right toolkit, regulators emerge well here.

But do they need to think again about their ability meaningfully to do the same for businesses that originate from elsewhere?

On Twitter, changes to moderation policies are, by design, public. How well placed are regulators to spot changes that happen behind completely closed doors?

Musk’s ownership of Twitter has set the Tesla founder a test he has, thus far, failed. But a much more important test for regulators is how well prepared they are to tackle Musk-like behaviour on genuinely critical bits of the internet.

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