One of the key questions posed early on around Elon Musk’s ‘free speech’ led takeover at Twitter was: ‘What will Elon do when government requests come from regions where Musk’s other business, Tesla, has a vested interest?’
Tesla, for example, is heavily reliant on China for both sales and parts manufacturing, while it’s also looking to expand its presence in India and Turkey. The governments in each of these regions have regularly sought to restrict speech, on Twitter and in other forms, which has put them at odds with social platform management in the past.
So how has Twitter 2.0 handled the same?
As it turns out, Elon has opted to comply with pretty much every government request, with a recent report showing that Twitter is now complying with such at a much higher rate than previous Twitter management.
As reported by El Pais:
“Since Musk’s takeover, the company has received 971 requests from governments (compared to only 338 in the six-month period from October 2021 to April 2022), fully acceding to 808 of them and partially acceding to 154. In the year prior to Musk taking control, Twitter agreed to 50% of such requests, in line with the compliance rate indicated in the company’s last transparency report (none have been published since October 2022). Following the change of ownership, that figure has risen to 83%.”
In response, Musk has said that Twitter has no choice but to comply with such, as these are governed by the laws in each region, and Twitter will always align with local laws.
But as noted, Twitter has held firm on such requests in the past. In June last year, for example, the Indian Government called on Twitter to ban various Pakistani-linked profiles due to government dissent. Twitter challenged those bans in court, putting it in conflict with the Indian government – which also put the app at risk of a local ban, something that’s been held over Twitter various times in the past, when it’s refused to cede to requests from the Indian government.
Twitter was briefly banned in Turkey in 2014 for the same, after refusing to comply with censorship requests from the Turkish government, which has since seen Turkish authorities implement new laws on what social platforms can and cannot publish.
So while Musk’s right that Twitter is aligning with local authorities, it does have the capacity to take a stronger stance on such, especially where such requests are in opposition to local laws, which some of these more recent requests have reportedly been. And given Musk’s public campaigning for free speech, you might expect Twitter 2.0 to be more inclined to fight back for the rights of its users – but thus far, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Of course, Twitter doesn’t have to. As Musk notes, the risk here is that if Twitter doesn’t comply, it could face bans in each region, and in most cases, according to Elon, it’s better to censor a little content in order to ensure ongoing access for all users.
Twitter doesn’t have to fight every case that comes up, but its broad compliance does seem to conflict with his own broader push for free and open speech - especially when you also consider that Musk has been highly critical of past Twitter management for purportedly working with US authorities to mitigate the spread of misinformation, which he’s deemed as an act of censorship.
Seems like that’s not a lot different to these requests, but as with most of Musk’s approaches, his moves are largely determined by his own experience, and what he sees as problematic based on his own ideological perspective. In this scenario, foreign interference is seemingly less of a concern, because it doesn’t impact him – while there are also the aforementioned conflicts of interest with Tesla.
Worth noting too that Musk has also overseen the removal of past restrictions on Chinese and Russian state media accounts.
Taking ownership of a large-scale media platform was always going to be a challenge for Elon in this respect, given the various plates he has spinning at any one time, and there were always going to be requests that likely conflict with his own beliefs, but would need to be viewed with his broader business interests in mind.
Elon’s view is that he will align with the government of the day, and adhere to requests as they are submitted – though I do wonder whether he would feel the same if, say, the US government were to submit similar, and how that might change his perspective.
Either way, it’s a challenging element, which Musk will always face difficulties in managing. But right now, it seems that his approach will be to approve more government censorship requests, as opposed to pushing back against authoritarian control.