Now that Elon Musk is the sole owner of Twitter – pending formal regulatory and shareholder sign-offs – it’s fair to say that not only will this change the social media giant, it will impact the landscape of social media generally. That means there are implications for how information will be delivered and consumed in the future. One of the areas affected will be freedom of information, which has been a deeply fraught and contested space across Asia. Will Musk’s Twitter be a boon or a bust for free speech advocates in the region?
Of Twitter’s 400 million users worldwide (about nine per cent of total social media usage), Japan is the platform’s second biggest market with around 55 million accounts. India is third largest. Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Malaysia are also in the top 20 in terms of country users.
So, in Asia, Musk certainly has some numbers to work with to forward his apparent freedom of speech agenda. But his own tweets on the takeover, and a recent post-announcement statement, fall short of offering a detailed plan or strategic overview of how he intends to do this. However, piecing together his statements, including, yes, his tweets, it’s possible to get a sense of his aims.
In late March 2022, Musk criticised Twitter for failing as a free speech platform and questioned whether a new one was needed. He has previously tweeted that the platform needed “to be transformed”.
Other suggestions offered by Musk via his Twitter account pre-purchase, include the abolition of advertising on the platform, for all users to be authenticated, and, famously, for the introduction of an edit button for tweets.
How might all this play in Asia?
There is no doubt the region is challenged in terms of democracy and freedom of information. A tense and fractured mass media environment, legal restrictions on numerous freedoms and the rise of authoritarianism all add up to top-heavy information channels that little serve the spread and development of democracy.
The potential of Twitter – and other platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok – to balance this with a sharper, more authentic, street-level media has been stymied by manipulation of in-built algorithms, fake accounts and the use of social media to counter and even attack critics of the mainstream.
Despite Musk’s thought-bubble tweets and sometimes enigmatic statements, there remain a number of moot points that are in need of clarification in the Asian context.
Gaps in the rhetoric
First, Twitter, like any other self-respecting social media platform, works hard to algorithmically promote the most shocking tweets and the loudest, most “interesting” voices. In Myanmar and the Philippines, for instance, social media abuse – often government-endorsed – has been weaponised and become deadly. Given the platforms allow extremes to flourish, how will Musk curtail these clear threats to freedom?
Second, while Musk has hinted that advertising from corporate and government entities may be stopped, those bodies still have access to their own accounts, and can still promote their perhaps anti-freedom views on the platform. A lingering, if less dominant cultural deference to authority across Asia, adds to the hierarchical nature of social media popularity and ensures such voices will continue to dominate the internet. How will Twitter address overt examples of extremism and oppression?
An edit button may have practical value in terms of avoiding personal embarrassment. But, in more serious statements – say by governments or corporations – it could become a means of denial.
Third, ensuring all users are authenticated – that is, are not bots – is supposed to curtail the spread of misinformation or hate posts by some form of user identification requirement on Twitter accounts. Such a reform will possibly do that. But, it will also silence pro-freedom dissenters who have been able to hide behind fake names. Forcing them, in the absence of local or global protection mechanisms, to provide IDs will almost certainly ensure they stay off the platform altogether. Will Twitter protect legitimate pro-freedom dissidents?
Meanwhile, the elites – governments especially – can still relatively easily manufacture fraudulent accounts by using names, for example, in government records as fake IDs. How will Musk guarantee Twitter won’t be one-way traffic on sensitive issues?
Fourth, Musk has tweeted that “new Twitter” will adhere to local regulations on censorship. As a working example, he nominated the rule in Germany that blocks all Holocaust denials on Twitter, which he says he would continue. Does this provide an invitation for authoritarian governments to introduce customised legal restrictions on discussing politically heated topics that Twitter would be obliged to follow?
Fifth, the use of an edit button may have practical value in terms of avoiding personal embarrassment. But, in more serious statements – say by governments or corporations – it could become a means of denial. Worse, it might be a method by which large, powerful bodies or individuals can issue threats and then edit them to escape culpability. How will the much anticipated edit option be implemented to ensure the mechanism is not abused?
Even as Elon Musk talks up democracy and freedom of speech, more details are needed before freedom advocates in Asia can be confident that Musk’s Twitter will be a genuine tool against misinformation.