Human rights groups and experts on free speech were very upset with Elon Musk’s decision on Thursday to ban several well-known journalists from Twitter. Some were worried that the tech magnate had given authoritarian governments a way to crack down on political dissent and independent reporting.
In interviews, scholars with expertise in technology and freedom of speech raised concerns that despots and authoritarian governments may take advantage of the situation and urge Musk to assist in stifling the work of journalists and activists, perhaps as a condition of doing business in their nations.
The worst regimes are already going to censor speech, according to David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who served as the UN’s free speech monitor from 2014 to 2020.
Musk posed the question of how he would react if a government instructed him, “Look, if you want to have a strong commercial relationship with us, we need you to clamp down on your platform being a venue for criticism of us.” “That will put him in a more difficult position.”
He said, “I believe he would be more ready to take those sorts of tactics that, really, are extremely problematic under regimes where there are no truly independent media and the place people go to communicate information is Twitter.”
On Thursday, Twitter terminated the accounts of a number of journalists who had been covering the company and Musk, including Ryan Mac of The New York Times, Donie O’Sullivan of CNN, Drew Harwell of The Washington Post, Matt Binder of Mashable, Micah Lee of The Intercept, Steve Herman of Voice of America, and independent reporters Aaron Rupar, Keith Olbermann, and Tony Webster.
Musk swore to operate Twitter as a self-described “absolute free-speech advocate” when he took over the firm. He claimed that by disclosing details about some of the trackers that had been banned from the site, including one that monitored Musk’s private plane, the reporters had broken the company’s new rules prohibiting private jet trackers.
According to the free speech experts who talked with NBC News on Friday, Twitter’s actions may encourage efforts to influence Musk from abroad.
“We don’t often consider the global component as much as we should since many of these firms are situated in the United States and the First Amendment is fully protected there.” “However, other countries have repressive or erratic laws governing speech,” said Gautam Hans, a Cornell University professor and expert on technology policy and the First Amendment.
“When traveling abroad, what would happen to Twitter-using journalists and activists?” Would a head of state ask you to stop the media from reporting on anything for their nation? “Elon Musk may be able to withstand that type of pressure, but I’m not sure,” Hans, who had previously been employed at the Center for Democracy and Technology, added.
When asked if it would remove journalist accounts if asked to do so by a foreign government or institution, Twitter did not immediately react to concerns about the criticism.
After Musk originally declared his ambition to purchase Twitter for $44 billion, his business connections with China came under close examination.
Experts have raised serious worries that his position as CEO of Tesla, a company with significant interests in China, may cause him to be less willing to take down propaganda endorsed by Beijing, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, and other problematic material from Twitter. (In that nation, the platform is unofficially restricted.)
Since President Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine and made it illegal to disseminate what his government refers to as “fake information” about the conflict, journalistic activity is routinely suppressed in Russia, where access to Twitter is heavily controlled. This has made independent reporting more impossible and forced many reporters to escape.
According to Kaye, the former head of the United Nations’ free speech monitor, the actions of Musk reminded him in part of the behavior of authoritarian governments that impose regulations prohibiting citizens from questioning the government or criticizing influential persons, such as members of royal families or regime friends.
According to him, Musk is a very important public figure, and the public is interested in what he says and the individuals he interacts with. “He must be open to being questioned about his activities, interactions, and other details.” He has amassed a sizable fortune and values his public image, but he refuses to acknowledge that this implies reporters will write about him.
Musk was the target of growing criticism on Friday from a variety of groups, including politicians, editors, and civil libertarians, both domestically and internationally.
“Twitter is a crucial platform for communication.” Amnesty International said in a statement on Friday that people’s rights to freedom of speech and the ability to disseminate information shouldn’t depend on whether Elon Musk agrees with them or not.
“Musk’s most recent action underscores the perils of unaccountable tech businesses having entire control over networks that people depend on for news and other essential information.”
The suspensions were called “alarming” by PEN America, a group that represents thousands of writers and journalists and advocates for literature and human rights. They also said that the richest person in the world “silences journalists or makes up new rules about content regulation on a whim, depending on what makes him uncomfortable.”
From the start, he has tended to use Twitter as a private fiefdom rather than a global public forum. Musk may speak all he wants about supporting free speech, but what he is really doing should be very evident to everyone.
Summer Lopez, the principal program officer for PEN America’s free speech projects, said that Twitter should lift these bans rather than punish journalists for carrying out their duties.
Source: NBC News