Twitter users may see more fake news, hate speech after Elon Musk takeover

03 May 2022

Straits Times, 3 May 2022, Twitter users may see more fake news, hate speech after Elon Musk takeover

Twitter users may see more fake news and harmful content such as hate speech if billionaire Elon Musk's plans to revamp the social media platform come true.

Such concerns were expressed by experts and observers in Singapore, following Twitter's statement last week that it had accepted his offer to acquire it for about US$44 billion (S$61 billion).

In the same announcement, Mr Musk said: "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."

The self-declared "free speech absolutist" also said he wanted to improve Twitter, including by "defeating the spam bots and authenticating all humans".

But experts and observers here told The Straits Times that Mr Musk's apparent plans to loosen Twitter's content moderation policies may lead to more harmful stuff appearing on the platform.

Associate Professor Alton Chua of Nanyang Technological University said: "With content moderation policies abolished, users can expect to hear more unfiltered voices."

This could mean the legitimisation of information disorder, including misinformation and disinformation, as well as harmful content such as hate speech.

Twitter accounts that were banned for reasons such as inciting violence - an example would be that of former United States president Donald Trump - could also be reinstated, said Prof Chua.

Dr Natalie Pang, a senior lecturer of communications and new media at the National University of Singapore, said more polarising opinions - which can contain half-truths and discriminatory content such as hate speech - may also appear on Twitter.

Professor Lim Sun Sun from the Singapore University of Technology and Design said it is unclear how far Mr Musk will push his ideology of "upholding free speech".

"Once he encounters the complexity of issues around granting everyone the right of 'free speech', he will find himself pushing against legal boundaries, cultural norms and public expectations," she added.

Mr Musk would have to shoulder the responsibility of handling a platform with unfettered free speech that could lead to content that harms vulnerable groups, such as child abuse material.

Under Singapore's fake news law, ministers can order websites, social media platforms and individual users to take down a piece of falsehood or ask for corrections to be put up alongside it.

But Prof Lim also said Mr Musk's takeover may be a good thing, as he may be able to address existing issues that plague social media platforms, such as trolls, extremist content and falsehoods.

"As a new entrant to the social media scene, he may well have some revolutionary ideas that upend existing practices and improve on them," she added.

Mr Musk, who has more than 80 million Twitter followers, has previously criticised the platform for its content moderation policies.

The Tesla and SpaceX chief executive did so again in a tweet in March, saying: "Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy."

On April 4, a regulatory filing with the US authorities showed that Mr Musk had acquired a 9.2 per cent stake in the platform.

The businessman later said on April 14 that he had offered to buy the platform, and Twitter - a publicly traded company - subsequently accepted his offer.

The takeover is expected to be completed by this year, according to media reports.

Last Thursday, The Business Times reported that Twitter called off a planned event to officially open an extension to its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore.

The event, scheduled to take place that day, was cancelled the day before. Twitter did not give a reason for the change of plans and declined comment.

But projects and operations proceeded as usual at Twitter's office here, even as staff told The Straits Times last Friday they had concerns over pay and stock options ahead of the takeover.

Despite the recent saga between the platform and Mr Musk, Twitter downloads in Singapore do not appear to be affected significantly.

According to research firm Apptopia, there were 1,485 daily downloads on the Apple App Store and Google Play last month.

In comparison, there were 1,674 daily downloads in March and 1,571 in February.