Twitter: Can Europe stop Elon Musk?

After the newspapers, it is now the social networks that are bought by (multi) billionaires. And as for the press, this concentration of power raises questions. Many people are worried about the takeover of Twitter by the richest man in the world, Elon Musk. And in particular the influence that could confer on him the control of a discussion platform bringing together more than 400 million users.

The charge against social networks has also increased in recent weeks, with former US President Barack Obama accusing them of being responsible “of the weakening of democracies”. Former White House candidate Hillary Clinton repeated his criticisms, but advanced as a solution… European legislation: ” L'[Union européenne] is ready to do something about it. I urge our transatlantic allies to follow through on their Digital Services Act and strengthen global democracy”. As the concentration of power in the major American platforms increases, is the solution to be found on this side of the Atlantic?

Before answering it, let’s first come back to the proposed takeover of Twitter. 44 billion dollars: this is the sum that the boss of the car manufacturer Tesla intends to put on the table to acquire the network. At the head of a fortune of more than 200 billion dollars, consisting mainly of Tesla shares, Elon Musk is financing this operation half from personal funds and half via bank loans.

Libertarian inspired

Why spend so much money? This is probably to be seen as a desire to amass ever more tools of influence. But his motivations are broader: Elon Musk wants to reform the social network. Following a libertarian inspiration, he wants to apply absolute freedom of expression. That is to say put an end to, or at least drastically reduce, content moderation. According to him, Twitter censors too much.

Concretely, today, the social network tries to identify the content deemed contrary to its standards, or more precisely to its general conditions of use. This concerns a fairly wide range, including child pornography, terrorist, violent tweets, false information – the famous “fake news” –, or even fake accounts that attempt to disseminate partial or misleading information. Moderators can remove this content, reduce their audience or even indicate that these comments may be misleading and possibly refer to other official sources. This has been done, for example, for many tweets concerning Covid-19, vaccines, or the war in Ukraine.

Several hundred million tweets are published daily, in dozens of languages. To moderate, the network obviously relies on its technology, with algorithms that will detect problematic content, but also on around 1,900 people in charge of moderation. This remains very low given the number of contents and their linguistic and cultural diversity.

The American context

According to the logic advocated by Elon Musk, the scope of this moderation would therefore be greatly reduced to relate only to what is deemed illegal according to American law. That is to say, not much. Schematically, a tweet addressed to a user containing a torrent of very explicitly identifiable insults would be deleted, but a video explaining that the vaccine against Covid-19 is deadly would continue to circulate.

“The takeover of Twitter should be placed in the American context, where the conservative wing complains enormously about the moderation policy of major platforms like Twitter.explains Florence G’Sell, professor of private law at the University of Lorraine, the Republican camp remains outraged by the banishment of Donald Trump from the network. »

“The takeover of Twitter is to be placed in the American context, where the conservative wing complains enormously about the policy of moderation of large platforms like Twitter” – Florence G’Sell

The former White House tenant’s account was deleted when he contested his defeat in the presidential election. Previously, Twitter had repeatedly added messages below the incumbent president’s tweets, indicating that his remarks could be misleading. If Twitter is often the target of censorship accusations, it is because the blue bird network has, on certain subjects, moderated its content more than its competitors, in particular Facebook.

Elon Musk, however, should not have too much difficulty reforming Twitter as he sees fit. The philosophy of the American legislation is clear: in terms of moderation and freedom of expression, the networks have no obligation.

“The first amendment to the constitution which guarantees freedom of expression is major but is only opposable to the State, not to platforms like Twitter or Facebookexplains Florence G’Sell, also holder of the Digital, Governance and Sovereignty Chair at Sciences Po. It is a system that is accepted in the United States and which dictates that the platforms do, with a few exceptions, what they want. »

More viral divisive content

What to expect? Since Elon Musk’s project is not precisely defined, it is difficult to answer the question, but certain trends emerge all the same. The drastic reduction in moderation would aggravate some social media flaws. One of the criticisms leveled at them is that they amplify the distribution of certain content that polarizes or radicalizes positions, because the latter make it possible to capture more attention.

Social networks are indeed based on tools aimed at maximizing the time spent by each user on the service. Thus content (text, video or image) sees its distribution amplified if it arouses more reaction (viewing, like or retweet) from Internet users. This is one of the main reasons for the virality of certain conspiratorial content, and others fake news.

If these controversial contents are less moderated, logically they will be disseminated more. For example, the accounts of Russian embassies around the world will be able to more easily explain (incorrectly) that such an image of the war in Ukraine is staged.

A more transparent algorithm

The multi-billionaire has also spoken in recent weeks about greater transparency in the algorithm. A platform’s algorithm is a black box that all digital giants are careful not to open. Making it transparent would allow a better understanding of its biases, to challenge them and possibly correct them. However, Elon Musk also intends to withdraw Twitter from the stock market, since he will be the only master on board. However, withdrawing a company from the financial markets also means freeing itself from a whole series of obligations to publish information.

The boss of Tesla and SpaceX also put forward proposals around potential Twitter subscriptions, which would give access to new possibilities. One consequence would be the reduction of dependence on advertising, which accounts for more than 85% of its turnover. This strategic change would make the company’s business model less dependent on time spent online and therefore on attention-grabbing tools.

Beyond the corporate reform project, what poses a problem is above all the lack of a framework for the governance of social networks, and the power that can be conferred on a single man to define the rules of discussion. of more than 400 million people. To control this power, Europe wants to make its voice heard. “Any business operating in Europe must comply with our rules. And this, regardless of the shareholding. Mr. Musk knows it very well”, tweeted Thierry Bretonthe European Commissioner for the Internal Market.

What the European Digital Service Act says

Brussels proudly brandishes its Digital Service Act (DSA), on which the European institutions reached an agreement at the end of April. This legislation, which should come into force in 2023, is the response of the Old Continent to regulate content on digital platforms. This is the “editorial” side of the Digital Market Act (DMA) which aims to regulate the various monopolies or dominant positions of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple,… the famous Gafa.

What does the DSA provide? As the European commissioner summarizes in lengthy interviews, the philosophy is as follows: What is prohibited in real life will also be prohibited in digital life. »

“The platforms are not responsible for the content they host, but they become so as soon as they are aware that this content is illegal” – Florence G’Sell

“The text maintains a principle already established in European law, namely that platforms are not responsible for the content they host, but that they become so as soon as they are aware that this content is illegal and that they do not act to suppress it”, explains Florence G’Sell. More specifically, the text provides for the obligation to put in place mechanisms for reporting problematic content and monitoring it. It also introduces the possibility of challenging moderation decisions.

European legislation also intends to impose greater transparency on platforms, for example by giving access to certain data to researchers and NGOs. A transparency that would also affect the algorithms, or at least some of them. Some provisions of the European rules will only concern large platforms, such as carrying out an independent audit on online risk management.

It will then be up to each state to define what is legal and illegal online and to national regulators to enforce it. This is where the sinews of war lies. On paper, the European response is strong, but applying it is another matter. “For example, a platform like Twitter today has great difficulty respecting French law.slice Florence G’Sell, online harassment is illegal, but it does happen here. »

A question of human resources

The challenge therefore lies in the human resources and technical expertise of national regulators. Concretely, it is a question of recruiting personnel capable of auditing and understanding the algorithms and the heart of the technology of the large platforms.

Regulators have already begun this rise in competence, which is by no means obvious or immediate. Imposing more transparency on the platforms should however make it possible to reduce the asymmetry of information between the latter and the public authorities. And this is a prerequisite for a more ambitious framework.

At the global level, Europe could thus be one of the few counter-powers against the power of the leaders of social networks. She still has to find the means…

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