Human rights groups raise hate speech concerns after Musk's Twitter takeover

Human rights groups warn that freedom of expression should not come at the cost of other human rights, after self-described "free speech absolutist" Elon Musk sealed a deal to buy Twitter.

Advocates warn free speech is not an absolute right, say Twitter cannot turn a blind eye to violent comments

Elon Musk provides an update on Starship, near Brownsville, Texas, on Feb. 10. Human rights groups are concerned about hate speech on Twitter in the wake of news that Musk is buying the social media platform. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald/The Associated Press)

Human rights groups warn that freedom of expression should not come at the cost of other human rights, after self-described "free speech absolutist" Elon Musk sealed a deal to buy Twitter.

Musk, the richest man in the world and the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, has clinched a $44-billion deal to buy the social media platform and take it private. 

It is a seminal moment for the 16-year-old company, one of the world's most influential public squares.

Musk has been critical of Twitter's policies of moderating content on the platform, and has said the social media giant should become a genuine forum for free speech. 

"Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," Musk said in a statement.

While some American Conservatives cheered the prospect of fewer controls, human rights activists voiced fears of a rise in hate speech.

Deborah Brown, a digital rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch, said that regardless of who owns Twitter, the company has the responsibility to respect the human rights of people around the world, who rely on the platform.

"Changes to its policies, features and algorithms, big and small, can have disproportionate and sometimes devastating impacts, including offline violence," Brown told Reuters in an email.

"Freedom of expression is not an absolute right, which is why Twitter needs to invest in efforts to keep its most vulnerable users safe on the platform."

Musk's Twitter account is seen on a smartphone in front of the Twitter logo. Musk, whose Twitter following tops 84 million, has been an outspoken critic of the company's moderation polices. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Amnesty International also weighed in, saying it was concerned about the potential for Twitter to make decisions that could erode enforcement mechanisms designed to moderate hate speech.

"The last thing we need is a Twitter that willfully turns a blind eye to violent and abusive speech against users, particularly those most disproportionately impacted, including women, non-binary persons and others," said Michael Kleinman, director of technology and human rights at Amnesty International USA.

Former Twitter CEO supportive

Musk wants Twitter's algorithm for prioritizing tweets to be public and said he objects to giving too much power on the service to corporations that advertise. He has also advocated user-friendly tweaks to the service, such as an edit button and defeating "spam bots" that send overwhelming amounts of unwanted tweets.

Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey weighed in on the deal late on Monday with a series of tweets that thanked both Musk and current Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal for "getting the company out of an impossible situation."

"Twitter as a company has always been my sole issue and my biggest regret. It has been owned by Wall Street and the ad model. Taking it back from Wall Street is the correct first step," he said.

Musk says it's not about the money

Musk, who is worth $268 billion, according to Forbes, has said he is not primarily concerned with the economics of Twitter.

"Having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization. I don't care about the economics at all," he said in a recent public talk.

The Twitter transaction was approved by the company's board and is now subject to a shareholder vote. No regulatory hurdles are expected, analysts said.

Although it is only about a 10th of the size of far larger social media platforms like Meta Platforms Inc.'s Facebook, Twitter has been credited with helping spawn the Arab Spring uprising, and accused of playing a role in the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol.

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