December 8, 2022 - 1:00pm

Elon Musk’s recent release of the so-called Twitter Files, via journalist Matt Taibbi, is profoundly concerning. The correspondence — as well as various leaks, FOIA requests and ongoing lawsuits has begun to shed light on the level of collusion between the US administration, not to mention its countless three-letter federal agencies, and social media companies. As many suspected, the so-called “war on disinformation” has little to do with protecting the public from false, misleading or dangerous content, but is really about censoring and suppressing dissenting voices, even at the cost of exposing the public to state-sanctioned disinformation. 

Musk has thrown a spanner in the works of this almost symbiotic relationship between political authorities and Big Tech companies, and his decision to loosen the platform’s guidelines has led to calls in the US for legislation allowing the government to regulate social media content. But fear remains that such a tool would simply be used to suppress free speech. Given the authorities’ track record, that’s not an unreasonable assumption.

However, getting such a law passed in Congress is likely to prove very difficult, given the constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression in the US (which is precisely why authorities resorted to backchanneling). A much more serious threat to Musk is the one being waged against him on the other side of the Atlantic, where governments have increased leeway when it comes to limiting free speech. The response of European Union commissioner Thierry Breton to Musk’s first post-takeover tweet — “the bird is freed” — was telling: “In Europe, the bird will fly by our EU rules”. 

Indeed, on Wednesday the EU threatened to ban Twitter from the continent if Musk doesn’t adhere to their strict content moderation guidelines, which are detailed in the European Commission’s Digital Services Act (DSA) that came into force last month. These guidelines include surrendering the platform to “independent audits” conducted by “independent” third parties, as well as the implementation of “mechanisms to adapt swiftly and efficiently in reaction to crises affecting public security or public health”. Breton once again took to social media to clarify what this means: the site must “reinforce content moderation” and “aggressively” root out disinformation, or else. 

The DSA has been accused of weakening free speech laws beyond breaking point. As Jacob Mchangama wrote in Foreign Policy:

The DSA does not strike the right balance between countering genuine online harms and safeguarding free speech. It will most likely result in a shrinking space for online expression, as social media companies are incentivised to delete massive amounts of perfectly legal content.

An appeal signed by several human rights and freedom of expression organisations echoes such concerns, noting that the DSA “is an overly broad empowerment of the European Commission to unilaterally declare an EU-wide state of emergency. It would enable far-reaching restrictions of freedom of expression and of the free access to and dissemination of information in the Union”. 

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the greatest threat to free speech today comes from the EU: the bloc’s entire institutional edifice, after all, is geared towards constraining democracy. The lesson here is that while the regulation of online speech cannot be left to private megaplatforms, it can’t be left to political and technocratic elites either. It has to be subject to a broad democratic debate involving all stakeholders — including users. Precisely the kind of open debate that Big Tech and governments have been trying to stifle for years.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.