Elon Musk’s pledge to undo the Twitter ban on Donald Trump if he completes his takeover of the social media platform has prompted warnings that it would provoke a backlash among users and could enter in conflict with new internet safety laws.
The Tesla CEO and the world’s richest man is buying Twitter for $44bn (£35.6bn) and has described himself as a ‘free speech absolutist’ with doubts about imposing permanent bans on Twitter accounts such as Trump’s, which was suspended after the Capitol riot last January.
Musk confirmed on Tuesday that if he goes through with the deal, he would lift the former US president’s suspension. “I would reverse the permanent ban,” he said, speaking via video link at an auto industry conference hosted by the Financial Times. “I think it was wrong to ban Donald Trump. I think it was wrong. It alienated the country and didn’t stop Donald Trump from being heard. I think it was a morally wrong and stupid decision in the extreme.
Kirsten Martin, professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame in Chicago, said Musk would face a backlash if he reinstated Trump’s account. “If Musk is worried that many people will be upset about Trump’s ban, he should see how many more people would be upset if Trump wasn’t banned,” she said. “Musk only seems to care about the opinion of a small group of individuals who incite violence or perpetuate hate speech.”
Twitter lost hundreds of thousands of users in the days after Elon Musk announced its takeover, as major accounts including Katy Perry and Barack Obama lost followers. At the same time, some right-wing Twitter accounts gained followers, according to data from analytics site Social Blade.
PEN America, a free speech campaign group, said Musk needed a “better explanation” for letting Trump back. “Is he judging that Trump did not engage in incitement, or is he saying that a sitting president inciting his supporters to violence or insurrection is fair game on Twitter?” Asked the group’s chief executive, Suzanne Nossel. “With the great power that Musk seeks to wield over our public discourse comes great responsibility. I hope the law according to Musk consists of something more than bald decrees from one man about who can stay or go. on Twitter.
Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog, said Trump’s reinstatement would pave the way for clemency for other banned accounts, such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Trump ally Roger Stone. “It won’t be just Trump that Musk will restore. There are dozens of people, from Alex Jones to Roger Stone to active white nationalists, who will also have their accounts restored,” said MMA President Angelo Carusone.
Other accounts banned on Twitter include Katie Hopkins, the British right-wing commentator, and David Icke, a prominent British conspiracy theorist.
Musk, speaking at the FT conference, said temporary suspensions might be a better solution. “If they’re saying something that’s illegal or just destructive to the world, then maybe there should be a timeout, a temporary suspension, or that particular tweet should be made invisible or have very limited traction. ”
Musk’s comments came after he appeared in a video with EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton on Monday, in which the entrepreneur said new rules governing internet content in the single market were “exactly aligned” with Twitter goals. Among the provisions of the Digital Services Act is a requirement that social media platforms allow users to report illegal content in a “simple and effective manner” so that it can be quickly removed.
In the UK, the Online Safety Bill also introduces content regulation. A political expert, who helped shape the regulatory framework for the bill, said the legislation would not prevent Trump’s return but could cause problems for the former president if his tweets incite violence.
The bill requires platforms to prevent unlawful harm, such as incitement to violence, but also contains an additional provision for prominent platforms, or “category 1” services, to protect adults from unwarranted content. criminal but nonetheless harmful – with definitions of “harmful content”. to be defined in new legislation. However, the new regulations also require platforms to protect content of Democratic significance, which could extend to Trump should he run for office again.
William Perrin, trustee of the Carnegie UK Trust, said: “The [online safety bill] presents no obstacle to Twitter deciding to readmit Donald Trump. However, if Trump begins to incite violence, several questions arise. First, in Twitter’s own terms and conditions; second, are UK users at risk of violence? If they are, one way or another, the OSB’s measures against illegal content would then be activated, possibly also those aimed at protecting children from harm.
He added: “Then, if Twitter is a ‘Category 1’ service, the OSB’s obligation to protect content of democratic significance should be weighed against the risk of harm from crime and harm to children as well as other harms to adults.”