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Elon’s mask

Twitter used to be a platform to share stories. Now is the story. And it demonstrates the power of media ecology in explaining what is happening and imagine what can happen. 

Elon’s mask

The expression “elon’s mask” is used here to designate a formidable, controversial, post-modern and very risky kind of communication stlye. The champion of this kind of communication is of course Elon Musk. But since the Southafrican entrepreneur bought Twitter, it is also becoming the worst danger for his companies. It could be his Waterloo, says Vivek Wadhwa, author, academic and entrepreneur, in a New York Times interview.

As long as Musk communicated his entrepreneurial experimentalism, the “elon’s mask” was a form consistent with the message. Basically, Musk’s communication style said: even if I express my vision very strongly, even if I launch very ambitious announcements, I don’t actually know if everything will work out as hoped because I’m doing very innovative things, but I know that every mistake and every difficulty will make me learn something which will eventually allow me to achieve the goal. This communication style was unconventional, but nothing worse.

But now that Musk’s communication style is being applied to Twitter and thus impacting the culture, the information, and the minds of hundreds of millions of people, it becomes especially harmful, to himself and to others.

In the complexity that provides context for media dynamics, Musk’s arrogant assertiveness generates consequences that are disastrous for users and contrary to his own stated goals. A bit of media ecology awareness would help him. And us.

Banality is not simplicity

Criticizing the previous managers of the platform, Musk called himself “an absolutist of freedom of expression”: he wanted to emphasize in that way his opposition to forms of control of posts published on Twitter, perhaps even suggesting that if he were in charge he would not have turned off Donald Trump’s profile following the former president’s expressed support for the hordes of violent thugs who invaded the U.S. legislature on January 6, 2021. Perhaps he thought he was making a largely agreeable statement: but he did not realize that freedom of expression cannot be absolute, because it is confronted with other rights and precise duties, such as privacy, security, defense of minorities and weak social partners, and respect for the Constitution, that is, precisely the favorite targets of the destructiveness of those groups that identify with organized hate and violence on the Web. And as a consequence of that banal statement, a number of users and advertisers decided to abandon Twitter, motivated by the realization that absolute freedom of expression is equivalent to turning the platform into a shallow cesspool of vulgarity, if not criminality, racism, sexism and so on. So that Musk had to backtrack immediately and promise that even under his management Twitter would follow the law, prevent the expression of violent and illegal views, work to maintain a certain quality of conversation on the platform, and prevent antisocial choices of expression. The free speech absolutist had to hurry and learn relativism.

But the lessons were not over. As soon as he arrived at Twitter, Musk saw fit to apply a simple recipe to the platform, convinced that he would restore it with a single decision: offer for a fee the blue checkmark that guarantees the identity of profiles that have it. Musk believed that this would be the way to rid the platform of its dependence on advertising – a goal well worth sharing – by beginning an era of subscriptions to useful services. But the banality of that thinking was immediately apparent: the people who bought the blue ticks often were the very people who wanted to impersonate celebrities and politicians. The epidemic of fake certified profiles forced Musk to stop offering that service and retrace his steps once again.

The media system is complex. All elements are connected to all others in direct and indirect ways. People and machines, interfaces and algorithms, structures and fashions, co-evolve. So that any belief that a certain move is surely – and linearly – matched by a certain consequence is likely to prove wrong and counterproductive. 

In reality, media function as an ecosystem. The discipline that studies them in this perspective is media ecology. The communication strategies of the future must be developed to take this complexity into account. And to read the evolving perspective of media, learning from the experience of those who study ecology is needed.

The new beginning could come from Europe.

Twitter’s new beginning for now has been nothing but a collection of messes. But new owner Elon Musk and his advisers may seize an unhoped-for opportunity to rethink the service in a way that is consistent with carefully thought-out rules and purposes that are truly human rights oriented. We are talking about the new regulatory paradigm decided by the European Commission that will become the fundamental legal environment for digital, probably not just European.

The Digital Services Act has come into force. It is the new European regulation designed to guide digital services toward greater respect for citizens’ rights, greater security of online activities, and a clearer definition of the responsibilities of large operators.

Cloud platforms and services, intermediaries and marketplaces, are affected by the new regulation. Which is all the more stringent the more citizens who receive those services from those platforms. In particular, there are rules that require making information about the operation of services transparently, terms of service that respect fundamental rights, cooperative attitude with the authorities for compliance with the rules, cooperation in fighting crime, facilitations for fact-checkers, prohibition of advertising aimed at children, transparency of recommendation algorithms, freedom not to use automatic information selection systems, data sharing with authorities and scientists, cooperation in responding to crisis situations.

The Commission is taking a few months to define which services must be subject to the stricter rules. And affected platforms will have a few more months to come into compliance. More or less at the beginning of 2024 everything should work as per the rules.

This is a significant shift in perspective. The world of Internet services has enjoyed the maximum deregulation decided in the days of Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the White House. But over time that freedom of action has generated very powerful negative externalities: fake news and hate speech, scams and regulatory uncertainty, excessive concentrations of power and tax avoidance, and so on. The Digital Services Act comes into force a few days after the Digital Markets Act, which in turn is supposed to ensure that there is real competition in the digital marketplace and that the concentration of power in large platforms does not hold back innovation. Brussels regulations, after all, also influence other political systems-the first to think about it is the United Kingdom itself. As the Financial Times reports, Ofcom, the UK’s network services regulator, is considering introducing a rule that would force platforms to disclose recommendation algorithms so as to prevent them from having the effect of favoring users’ access to extremist content. It is ironic that this extremism favored by platforms helped lead the United Kingdom out of the European Union, which it now imitates on the regulatory side.

Twitter could seize on this regulatory innovation to write smarter strategies. Musk kicked out all the staffers who had been involved in dialogue with the Commission. And at the same time he finds himself redefining the strategy of his platform with the stated intent of better serving the freedoms and rights of citizens who use Twitter. There would be no better opportunity to demonstrate the sincerity of this intention than to begin a close dialogue with the Commission to define Twitter’s new strategy in a manner consistent with the Digital Services Act. Since Musk became interested in Twitter, many users have become distrustful, a few advertisers have begun to doubt about Twitter as the right environment for advertising, and the platform has lost credibility. The fake accounts so much denounced by Musk have increased with his policy of selling the blue checkmark guaranteeing users’ identities to those who want it: a phenomenon so egregious that Musk was forced to retrace his steps. And the proclaimed idea of being a “free speech absolutist” has led Musk to clash with the discovery that there are other human rights that must be respected. The Digital Services Act is a set of rules and is based on principles that if truly respected could restore Twitter’s credibility. And Twitter could be the first platform to proactively adapt to the new regulatory environment. This would be a win-win strategy.

Read also (in Italian)

Foto: “Elon Musk” by dmoberhaus is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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Luca De Biase

Knowledge and happiness economy Media and information ecology


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