Elon Musk, Twitter and the European reaction

Elon Musk, Twitter and the European reaction

This tweet from Thierry BretonEuropean Commissioner for the Internal Market, reflects the influence that the European Union would like to exert in the construction of the Twitter version Elon Musk. It is one of the many reactions of European personalities to the moderation policy pursued by the new leader. Since the effective takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk, this social network has been at the heart of the news and controversy. In question, a wave of total freedom “made in Elon Musk” shaking up European regulations and in particular freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Under libertarian influence, Elon Musk wishes, in his words, to transform Twitter into “a common digital public square where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy way, without resorting to violence“. This vision clashes with that of the European Union, as Emmanuel Macron reminded us during the American show Good Morning America : “Freedom of expression and democracy are based on respect and public order. You can protest, you can express yourself freely, you can write whatever you want, but there are responsibilities and limits.“. Thus, the heart of the debate is centered on the management of Twitter by its leader who represents a source of concern for the old continent.

A now automated moderation policy

After breaking between 4,400 and 5,500 service provider contractss, which among other things took care of the moderation of the social network, it remains today less than 2,000 moderators worldwide. Elon Musk favors automated moderation to de-reference hateful content on the site. This content would thus be authorized, with the reservation that it would no longer be accessible on the news feed of individuals, only on their profile and therefore demonetizeds.

The Musk era also marks the end of the moderation policy vis-à-vis the Covid-19 crisis and the fight against misinformation about vaccines. Recall that previously it was prohibited on Twitter to use the services to share false or misleading information on the Covid-19 likely to cause harm.

In addition, almost 12,000 previously banned accounts have been reinstated, another 50,000 banned accounts may follow. Among these may be mentioned accounts of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, or Donald Trump’s account. All of these reinstated accounts were able to take advantage of access to the subscription of “Twitter Blue” allowing for increased visibility.

Automated moderation that is already showing weaknesses

This cocktail of moderation quickly showed its limits. According to New York Times, hateful content is already widely disseminated on the platform. The study conducted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate demonstrates this upward trend: during the first week under the leadership of Elon Musk, we recorded 26,228 Tweets and re-tweets mentioning the word N*gger (translated by “niggers”), i.e. a multiplication by 3 in 2022; a 60% increase in anti-Semitic messages; 4000 homophobic tweets per day, an increase of 58%. Terrorist content is also on the rise. According to Global Network on extremism and technologyin the early days of Twitter under Elon Musk’s rule, 450 new Islamic State accounts were detected, an increase of 69%.

This expansion of terrorist content on the platform as well as the reduction of moderation could undermine Twitter’s compliance with the duty to fight against this content. In effect, the rule said “TCO” (“terrorist content online”), applicable since June 7, 2022, requires online platforms to remove terrorist content within the hour or to block it in the European Union. Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to 4% of the company’s worldwide turnover.

Elon Musk has refuted these figures: according to him, “hate speech views (number of times the tweet was seen) continue to decline, despite a significant increase in the number of users! Negativity should and will get less reach than positivity.”. He adds : “Hate speech represents less than 0.1% of what is seen on Twitter“.

The European Union is cracking down

Thierry Breton, in charge of implementing the Digital Services Acthad an exchange by videoconference with Elon Musk, to remind him the main principles ofand this regulation.

First principle, Twitter must contribute to the fight against illegal content by introducing a tool to facilitate its reporting. It will also have to cooperate with “trusted flaggers, whose role is to provide expertise in reporting content. Second principle, the transparency of the moderation policy, with the obligation to create an internal complaint handling system allowing users to challenge a sanction from the platform. The operation of algorithms and their use to target advertising content must be known to users and to the European Commission. Finally, the third principle is active participation in mitigating the risks of misinformation and preventing crises: codes of conduct, promotion of verified information, deletion of accounts carrying misinformation, etc.

The result of this exchange between Thierry Breton and Elon Musk gave hope thatElon Musk would comply with the DSA. A stress test will take place at Twitter headquarters in early 2023 to assess its compliance.

Emmanuel Macron reminds Elon Musk of his obligations

During his visit to the USA, the President of the Republic and the leader of Twitter were able to meet in Louisiana. Elon Musk has thus confirmed Twitter’s participation in the Christchurch Appeal, which is a movement made up of states, businesses and NGOs fighting against the dissemination of terrorist and extremist content on the internet. By participating in this call, Twitter is committed to the immediate removal of terrorist content, and to verifying that the algorithms do not suggest extremist content to users. Elon Musk also promised the establishment tools more effective in verifying users’ age, detecting sexual predators and combating cyberbullying.

The case Elon Jet : from exacerbated freedom to censorship

Elon Musk’s latest decision raises great concern for the future of the blue bird in Europe: Elon Musk has suspended several accounts of American journalists belonging to CNN, New York Times or the Washington Post who had tweeted about the decision to suspend the account that relayed Elon Musk’s jet routes. The account “Elon Jet” used public data to automatically pinpoint the location of Elon Musk’s Jet. Elon Musk, saying he fears for his safety and that of his family, justified these suspensions by the “doxing (disclosure of personal information about an individual on the internet without their consent).

Initially suspended for seven days, Elon Musk once again turned to the subscribers of his Twitter account to choose the duration of the suspension. Finally, the Twittersphere spoke, and the accounts that had posted the location will have their suspension lifted. Thus, the reinstatement of accounts should take place quickly.

Still, Elon Musk’s decision has generated anger within the European Union but also internationally. The crossing of the red line is close. The blocking of journalists constitutes an obstacle to freedom of the press as well as to media pluralism.

The spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General described these suspensions as “dangerous precedent”. Moreover, the European Union is unanimous: there is “a problem with Twitter” according to the German Foreign Minister, who also believes that “freedom of the press should not be turned on and off at convenience”.

In addition, the Vice-President of the European Commission has qualified this decision “disturbing” and invited Elon Musk not to cross “the Red line” under penalty of punishment. Besides the Digital Services Act which protects fundamental rights on online platforms, the Vice-President refers to the Media Freedom Acta European text under development, and which, given the context, becomes more than legitimate.

This draft regulation provides among other things for the protection of editorial independence, the protection of media pluralism, the prohibition of the use of spyware against the media. Finally, the protection of online media content requires very large platforms to justify decisions to withdraw press articles when there is no misinformation.


As part of a partnership with the Master 2 in Electronic Media Law from the University of Aix-MarseilleThe Highlighters offer you a selection of articles between November 2022 and January 2023. More articles can be viewed on the website of Institute for Research and Studies in Information and Culture Law (IREDIC)

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