The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, announced this week that she was quitting X, formerly Twitter, because it is a “gigantic global sewer” that damages democracy by spreading abuse and misinformation. It is hard to disagree.
While security experts point to the role played by private messaging apps such as Telegram in allowing far-right provocateurs to light the spark that led to riots on the streets of Dublin last Thursday, these services do not reach the huge audiences commanded by platforms like TikTok or X.
In the 13 months since billionaire Elon Musk acquired X, he has gutted the company’s staff, including its content moderation teams. The result has been predictable: a flood of misinformation and hate speech, which has only grown in intensity since the outbreak of war in Israel and Gaza.
In October, European Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton wrote an urgent letter to Musk, warning him of the requirement to be “timely, diligent and objective” in removing potentially illegal content on X. Since then, the European Commission has joined corporate giants such as Apple, Disney and IBM in suspending advertising on X following allegations that their ads were appearing alongside far-right content. Other companies withdrew their business after Musk commented approvingly on an anti-Semitic post.
Twitter was always far from perfect. But since Musk’s takeover it has degraded at an alarming speed. One reason is the stripping away of moderation resources. Another is an aggressive new commercial strategy that incentivises content designed to elicit anger and outrage. A third reason is the behaviour of Musk himself, who has used his own personal X account to amplify right-wing tropes, some of them from Ireland, to his 165 million followers around the world, and to boost accounts which promote falsities. In the days following the Dublin riots, he posted that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “hates the Irish people”.
As a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist, albeit one not averse to suspending journalists from X or threatening defamation lawsuits against organisations which dare to criticise its failure to remove anti-Semitic content, Musk is of course entitled to his own opinions.
But the cumulative effect of his behaviour poses a serious challenge for the EU and its recently introduced Digital Services Act. The new act is the product of longstanding concerns that social media giants, unlike traditional publishers, were able to avoid responsibility for the content they host. Musk’s aggressive political grandstanding and the cumulative effect of the changes he has wrought on Twitter make it glaringly obvious that the old argument that digital platforms were simply neutral pipelines for information no longer stands up to scrutiny. It seems the EU and X are set on an inevitable collision course.