Billionaire Elon Musk buys one of the most influential social media platforms with millions of active users, sparking anxieties over unfettered online hate speech and "having so much power in the hands of one individual."

Elon Musk has been touting
Elon Musk has been touting "free-speech" but is also known for blocking Twitter users who question or disagree with his opinions. (AFP)

With billionaire Elon Musk sealing a $44 billion deal for Twitter and pledging to protect free speech, experts and rights groups say there is a risk to human rights and personal safety as Musk seeks to privatise the platform and now has access to an immense amount of data. 

"As a private individual taking a publicly-traded company private, there are enormous implications," Spencer Critchley, a California-based author and media commentator told TRT World. 

"We have seen the literally society-changing impacts of Rupert Murdoch [media mogul] in the US, Australia, the UK where he has established large ownership positions in media and has been able to affect politics and even the culture through owning these gigantically-powerful media outlets."

"So any time a private individual has access to this much power, we have to be concerned in a democracy," Critchley said.

Critchley said when there are concentrations of power and what you want the media to do is to counter-balance that power "but, of course, that is not what happens when private individuals own the media and that's one of the huge issues we are wrestling with here."

Freedom of speech was the first thing Musk tweeted about immediately after the deal was announced. 

He wrote: "Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated."

Musk wants to enhance Twitter with new features, including making the algorithms open source to increase trust, removing spam bots, and authenticating all humans, sparking hate speech and data misuse concerns.

Critchley said Musk, owner of Tesla TSLA.O and SpaceX, seems to have libertarian views which he said is typical of the Silicon Valley CEOs and engineers "but there is a tendency towards absolutism that shows lack of political sophistication."

"One of the risks of engineers –– the more the brilliant they are the greater this risk grows and Musk, of course, is a brilliant engineer and a brilliant businessperson –– they tend to think they can apply that mindset to solving every problem, and they wonder why everybody else is so stupid that they haven't solved all the problems like free speech for example or the difficulty of running a publishing enterprise or a social media network," Critchley said. 

"And it’s not as simple as having an absolute commitment to free speech. There is no absolute right to free speech, there is no absolute to virtually any right."

READ MORE: Elon Musk buys Twitter for about $44B, will privatise company

Lack of progress in curbing hate speech

Meanwhile, global rights watchdog Amnesty International expressed concern over the unabated hate speech and Twitter's lack of progress in containing it.  

"We are concerned with any steps that Twitter might take to erode enforcement of the policies and mechanisms designed to protect users. The last thing we need is a Twitter that willfully turns a blind eye to violent and abusive speech against users, particularly those most disproportionately impacted, including women, non-binary persons, and others," said Michael Kleinman, director of technology and human rights at Amnesty International (USA).

"Regardless of ownership, Twitter has a responsibility to protect human rights, including the rights to live free from discrimination and violence and to freedom of expression and opinion – a responsibility that they already too often fail," Kleinman said in a statement released to media.

The right body said it has been tracking the disturbing persistence of hate speech on Twitter – especially violent and abusive speech against women and non-binary persons – while the social media platform has shown a lack of progress in curbing the hate speech.

"Our Toxic Twitter report from 2018 found that the platform failed to uphold its responsibility to protect women’s rights online, leading many women to silence or to censor themselves on the platform. We have since released a number of follow-up reports tracking Twitter’s continued lack of progress on this issue," Kleinman said. 

"Our most recent report, from December 2021, highlighted several concrete steps that Twitter should take to address hateful and abusive speech against women, of which they have fully implemented only one."

READ MORE: Twitter shares rise on reports company will accept Elon Musk's takeover bid

Unfettered hate speech

Voicing concern the deal could lead to unfettered hate speech, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights body in the US, asked Musk to keep intact a ban on former US president Donald Trump. 

"Mr. Musk: free speech is wonderful, hate speech is unacceptable. Disinformation, misinformation and hate speech have NO PLACE on Twitter. Do not allow 45 to return to the platform. Do not allow Twitter to become a petri dish for hate speech, or falsehoods that subvert our democracy,"

"Protecting our democracy is of utmost importance, especially as the midterm elections approach. Mr. Musk: lives are at risk, and so is American democracy," NAACP said in a statement.

Trump has said he won't return to Twitter even if his account is reinstated.

"I am not going on Twitter, I am going to stay on Truth," Trump told US media on Monday, referring to the social media company he founded after being banned from successive websites over the January 6 Capitol insurrection. 

Musk's purchase of Twitter has raised worries over the boundaries of online speech on the social media platform capriciously ruled by the world's richest person.

Civil rights groups say the deal effectively gives Musk enormous power to gate-keep content on Twitter. 

Musk is a "card-carrying member and one of our most significant supporters," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said, but warned of "having so much power in the hands of any one individual."

"In today's world, a small handful of private tech companies — including Twitter — play a profound and unique role in enabling our right to express ourselves online," ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said.

"We should be worried about any powerful central actor, whether it's a government or any wealthy individual — even if it's an ACLU member — having so much control over the boundaries of our political speech online."

READ MORE: ‘Time for Truth’: Inside Trump’s app Truth Social

Source: TRT World