Friday, June 9, 2023

Elon Musk’s proposed acquisition of Twitter raises questions about its role in digital social infrastructure

Over the past few weeks, the recent proposed acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk has sparked much public discussion. Many have balked at the idea that a billionaire would completely control one of the world’s important social networks, which has been adopted by academics and politicians as a venue of choice for public debate.

But what is a public square, and what can we do to protect it?

squares and spheres

The concept of public class is one that has a rich history in communication and technology studies. Historically, the public square was a central place where townspeople could gather and debate the issues of the day. Every public square can be considered part of the public realm, which is the area outside the home where people engage in all kinds of public activities, such as debating, working, joining the community, etc.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas described the ideal public realm as spaces in which a diverse set of ideas were freely debated until they converged on a common ground. Habermas cited the example of a 17th-century coffeehouse in London, where male intellectuals and politicians met to discuss social issues of the time.

18th century illustration of men playing drafts in a coffeehouse in London.
(S. Ireland/Welcome Collection)

Habermas also criticized radio and television—the communication technology of the 1960s, which arguably continued well into the 1990s. They argued that their one-sided dissemination of information destroyed the public sphere, and made people passive recipients of information without giving them an opportunity to react.

virtual public area

With the advent of the Internet and social media, the public sector appeared to be reviving. People can share their thoughts not only with their immediate community, but with others around the world. Compared to earlier places of public debate, the Internet appears to be more inclusive, allowing people of any gender, nationality or social class to participate, not just those with social privileges.

However, with it came new forms of exclusion based on language, literacy, digital skills and Internet use.

There were other issues as well. Many argued that social media is polarizing, leading to the spread of viral misinformation and ultimately destabilizing democracy. In fact, it has been the subject of vigorous debate in the digital public sector for over a decade.

One of the current criticisms of Musk’s attempt to acquire Twitter is that he does not understand the public sector or Twitter’s role in it. As such, Musk may not take the right measures to protect and reform it, especially when it comes to minority rights.

Three people in a row with mobile phone in hand
Social media has become a place for access to information and exchange of ideas.

private owned public class

Like Habermas, many commentators today are concerned with the erosion of the public sphere. This space, even in a digital setting, is meant to allow people to discuss issues, access different perspectives, and converge on common values ​​and objectives.

While Twitter is often used for less lofty purposes, such debate does exist on the platform. It is also used for other important purposes, such as dissemination of information about humanitarian crises or locating missing children,

Twitter, if it can be considered a public sector, is part of the global public sector, which is largely made up of social media platforms. Some of the biggest – Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – are owned by Mark Zuckerberg.

Read more: ‘Digital town square’? What does it mean when billionaires own the online space where we congregate?

As we have seen in many recent examples, the algorithms running these platforms can be easily modified by social media companies, which has a huge impact on public opinion. These algorithms are effectively owned by some very wealthy individuals who can manipulate opinion – and thus votes – further distancing us from democracy.

Social media as a public good

Several national and international bodies are investigating the idea of ​​digital public goods today. In this context, it would mean that social media platforms should be available to all and regulated through international law, acknowledging their important role in our social infrastructure.

Within this framework, an international body, such as the United Nations International Telecommunication Union, which oversees radio and other communication technologies, may coordinate an international conference on digital public goods, including social media.

Signatory countries can then implement stronger and more nuanced national rules, particularly in terms of monitoring hate speech and misinformation. As it stands, social media companies often resolve these issues internally after the fact.

In addition, efforts can be made to encourage more diversity in social media platforms. For example, platforms can be interoperable, as can Facebook and Instagram (both owned by Meta), so that people can access their networks and share content from smaller platforms.

Read more: If Elon Musk is successful in his Twitter takeover, it will restrict rather than promote free speech

It is already common practice to manipulate public opinion on social media to achieve political results. However, the extent to which social media companies should be held accountable for the content they host is an ongoing tug of war with regulators. Recent examples include Facebook’s role in spreading hate speech that contributed to ethnic violence against the Rohingya in 2018.

Stop killing rohingya youth holding placards in kufi
A United Nations investigation found that Facebook was used to spread hate speech against the Rohingya.
(Lens Hitam/Shutterstock)

Finally, it may still be relevant to review the internal governance structures of social media platforms to prevent networks above a certain size from being owned by a single individual.

But it follows other significant moves related to diversity and clear guidelines across platforms – and stronger restrictions for manipulative algorithms or dangerous content.

Read more: Unheard: How Facebook is playing a role in the Rohingya genocide

clear, global regulation

The current debate around Twitter challenges its transformation into a private company. However, addressing this may mean more than just allowing members of the public to become corporate shareholders again. In fact, this public outcry can be interpreted as a convergence towards making social media platforms a global public good.

Ultimately, more explicit regulation, and on an international level, will be necessary.

It’s easier to find fault with being owned by a billionaire than in a public deliberation. However, the rule of social media in our society was never the norm to begin with. Let’s use this opportunity to improve the digital public sector, regardless of who owns a particular space.

World Nation News Desk
World Nation News Desk
World Nation News is a digital news portal website. Which provides important and latest breaking news updates to our audience in an effective and efficient ways, like world’s top stories, entertainment, sports, technology and much more news.
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