In some ways, Yoel Roth’s essay was “more of the same,” for readers who’ve been following the chaos at Twitter since Musk acquired it. But what struck me was Roth’s recitation of all manner of complicated issues that Musk had obviously never considered: as he says, “even Elon Musk’s brand of radical transformation has unavoidable limits.”
The influence of advertisers has perhaps been the most obvious limitation, since it has been highlighted in a number of news reports. You’d think it is one aspect Musk would have understood, since –according to Roth–ninety percent of Twitter’s revenue comes (came??) from advertising. When Musk’s acquisition was immediately followed by a wave of racist and antisemitic trolling, wary marketers took a pause. They’re still paused.
But even if Mr. Musk is able to free Twitter from the influence of powerful advertisers, his path to unfettered speech is still not clear. Twitter remains bound by the laws and regulations of the countries in which it operates. Amid the spike in racial slurs on Twitter in the days after the acquisition, the European Union’s chief platform regulator posted on the site to remind Mr. Musk that in Europe, an unmoderated free-for-all won’t fly. In the United States, members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have raised concerns about the company’s recent actions. And outside the United States and the European Union, the situation becomes even more complex: Mr. Musk’s principle of keying Twitter’s policies on local laws could push the company to censor speech it was loath to restrict in the past, including political dissent.
You would think someone able to pay 44 billion dollars for a social media platform would have good lawyers–and would have consulted them about the legal landscape he was about to enter, but evidently not. (The first clue that he’d failed to do so was his immediate, wholesale firing of half of Twitter’s employees–a move that neglected legal niceties like required notice.)
Regulators have significant tools at their disposal to enforce their will on Twitter and on Mr. Musk. Penalties for noncompliance with Europe’s Digital Services Act could total as much as 6 percent of the company’s annual revenue. In the United States, the F.T.C. has shown an increasing willingness to exact significant fines for noncompliance with its orders (like a blockbuster $5 billion fine imposed on Facebook in 2019). In other key markets for Twitter, such as India, in-country staff members work with the looming threat of personal intimidation and arrest if their employers fail to comply with local directives. Even a Musk-led Twitter will struggle to shrug off these constraints.
As daunting as the legal landscape, however, is a constraint of which I’d been totally unaware–and something tells me it hasn’t been at the forefront of Musk’s mind, either: the app stores operated by Google and Apple. The author says that “failure to adhere to Apple’s and Google’s guidelines would be catastrophic, risking Twitter’s expulsion from their app stores and making it more difficult for billions of potential users to get Twitter’s services.”
Apple’s guidelines emphasize creating “a safe experience for users” and stress the importance of protecting children.
The guidelines quote Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” quip, saying the company will ban apps that are “over the line.”
In practice, the enforcement of these rules is fraught.
In my time at Twitter, representatives of the app stores regularly raised concerns about content available on our platform. On one occasion, a member of an app review team contacted Twitter, saying with consternation that he had searched for “#boobs” in the Twitter app and was presented with … exactly what you’d expect. Another time, on the eve of a major feature release, a reviewer sent screenshots of several days-old tweets containing an English-language racial slur, asking Twitter representatives whether they should be permitted to appear on the service.
Reviewers hint that app approval could be delayed or perhaps even withheld entirely if issues are not resolved to their satisfaction — although the standards for resolution are often implied. Even as they appear to be driven largely by manual checks and anecdotes, these review procedures have the power to derail company plans and trigger all-hands-on-deck crises for weeks or months at a time.
As the author points out, Musk has criticized the capriciousness of platform policies. (I believe this is an illustration of a pot calling a kettle black).
In appointing himself “chief twit,” Mr. Musk has made clear that at the end of the day, he’ll be the one calling the shots.
And the “chief twit” is nothing if not arbitrary and capricious..
I hope I have enough popcorn…