When Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, announced his intention to buy Twitter for $43 billion, his letter to the company’s Board of Directors made a succinct but sweeping argument about the platform’s value as a forum for global free speech. “I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe,” Musk wrote, “and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”
In subsequent comments, Musk suggested that under his leadership, Twitter would bring transparency to the platform’s recommendation algorithm, endorsed the rollout of an edit button, and underscored his belief that Twitter’s moderation rules should not extend beyond the laws of the country in which it’s operating. But Musk has offered few other details on how Twitter might support the concept of free speech, while glossing over complicated issues that have dogged other social media platforms, such as content moderation and compliance with restrictive governments.
If Musk is successful in his takeover attempt, he’ll be inheriting a company that’s on the front lines of navigating these questions all around the world. That’s particularly true in countries that have proven to be hostile to a free press and public dissent. In places like India, Nigeria, and Russia, governments have put pressure on Twitter by banning the platform outright, issuing a flood of takedown requests, and instituting so-called “hostage-taking laws,” forcing platforms to have in-country staff who can be legally held accountable for any violations.
“Companies are incentivized to comply with repressive orders relating to censorship or online surveillance, not only due to financial constraints and business interests but also the safety of their employees,” said Kian Vesteinsson, a research analyst of technology and democracy at Freedom House.
Between January and June 2021, Twitter saw the largest number of government takedown requests globally since it started releasing transparency reports in 2012, with over 196,000 accounts flagged. There are legitimate reasons governments request to take down social media posts, including when they are related to violent crimes, financial scams, or child pornography. But as the legal mechanisms for takedowns are refined by authorities, court-ordered takedowns are increasingly a tool for going after political speech and posts about gender and religion.
Twitter does not always comply with takedown requests, but, in countries like Indonesia and India that have passed new laws restricting online content, navigating the deluge of requests and maintaining free speech principles is a tightrope walk. Last year, the Modi government enacted increasing pressure on Twitter to remove content from activists and journalists in the wake of the farmer protests. The tensions culminated in a May 2021 raid of Twitter’s offices in Delhi.
In addition to takedown requests, Twitter has had to navigate how to moderate public statements by government leaders, particularly when they are mouthpieces for disinformation or calls to violence. Last fall, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro instituted a new law that would limit Twitter’s ability to moderate posts, including his own claim that he would only lose this coming October 2022 election if there were voter fraud.
In June 2021, moderation of a post by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s Twitter account, threatening a secessionist group, became a catalyst for an all-out nationwide ban of the platform that lasted until January 2022. Twitter was an essential tool for political protests in Nigeria during the #EndSARS movement in 2020 and has been a source for public health information during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rest of World reported last year that the negotiations to end the ban led to concessions, including Twitter’s agreements to pay taxes, share data, and commit to national cohesion. Vesteinsson called the incident a bellwether for how world leaders have used bans as leverage to influence Twitter’s operations. “By exploiting their capacity as gatekeepers to certain markets, government officials can pressure companies into agreeing to the authority’s terms of operations,” he said.
Last year, Rest of World also reported on the trend of hostage-taking laws, a series of government mandates that social media companies, including Twitter, open physical offices or local data storage facilities in countries where they operate. In the wake of Nigeria’s ban, Twitter was mandated to open an office in the capital Abuja, and similar laws have taken effect in Turkey, Russia, and Vietnam.
These laws make the stakes of compliance for Twitter not just continued operations in a given country but the physical safety of Twitter employees. “It really raises the risk for companies that seek to resist government orders, by placing individual employees in the crosshairs,” said Vesteinsson.
Two days after Musk’s attempt to buy the company, Twitter’s Board of Directors adopted a “poison pill” plan that would significantly challenge Musk’s ability to buy the company outright. In a TED Talk following his initial buyout announcement, Musk suggested he had a “plan B” for such a scenario.
If Musk succeeds, Twitter’s various run-ins with governments around the world suggest that maintaining the social media company as a “platform for free speech” will be difficult. In response to a question during his TED Talk about the prospect of running Twitter, Musk said, “I hope it’s not too miserable.”