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Elon Musk and the Digital Services Act

In early May 2022 E.U. Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton flew to Austin Texas to meet with Elon Musk, the soon to be owner of the social media platform Twitter (now X). Breton had made the trip to discuss a new piece of E.U. legislation, the Digital Services Act, which contains extensive new laws concerning content moderation on social media sites. The discussion between Breton and Musk was apparently positive with Musk apparently finding the new laws to be more than agreeable, posting a tweet showing him and Breton with the caption “Great meeting! We are very much on the same page.” Nevertheless, Musk’s grand vision of Twitter was one where all speech would be championed and protected. This protected content would include the same types of harmful disinformation and conspiracy theories the Digital Services Act had been created to address.


The E.U. Commission submitted the Digital Services Act to the E.U. Parliament and Council in late 2020, and the act was passed in October 2022. It was drafted with the intention to overhaul the European Union’s legal framework for addressing illegal content, targeted advertising, and the spread of disinformation on online platforms such as social media sites. It requires large social media sites to submit information to the E.U. Commision and inform users on their content moderation procedures and also compels these platforms to address the risks of disinformation and illegal content. It attempts to safeguard the rights of users, and potentially hold companies accountable for hosting illegal content and disinformation.


Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter was accompanied by the slashing of misinformation protocols and regulations, with content restrictions loosened and large parts of the teams responsible for content moderation being laid off. Musk also granted amnesty to almost all banned accounts, restoring the privileges individuals responsible for spreading harmful misinformation and propagating conspiracy theories such as former U.S. president Donald Trump, who claims that his 2020 election loss was illegitimate, or Kanye West, who had previously been banned for anti-semetic posts. In the time since Musk’s takeover, misinformation has been ubiquitous on the site with misleading information and propaganda surrounding topics such as the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war and conflict between Israel and Hamas being widespread. An E.U. Commission report examining disinformation on each of the large 6 social media platforms, Facebook, Tiktok, Linkedin, Instagram, X, and Youtube found that the discoverability of misinformation was highest on X. Content containing disinformation was also more engaged with on X than the other platforms.


On the 10th of October, Thierry Breton issued a letter of complaint to Elon Musk regarding disinformation on the platform surrounding the recent conflict in Israel and Palestine. In the letter, Breton states that disinformation and illegal graphic content is being disseminated on the site, and criticises the uncertainty of recent content policy changes. Breton also calls on Musk to deliver a detailed report on the systems X has in place to mitigate the potential social risks caused by disinformation, as well as offer transparency regarding what content is allowed on the site. Musk responded to the letter with hostility in a post on X, by requesting that Breton offer examples of the violations he claims exist on the site. Additionally, X CEO Linda Yaccarino responded by claiming that X was “working around the clock” to address disinformation and claimed they had “taken action to remove or label tens of thousands of pieces of content”. Yaccarino further detailed the platform's policies and strategies in combating fake news and illegal content.


Nonetheless, a day later the E.U. Commision sent X a formal request for information and began an investigation into the platform. In the event that X is found to be not complying with the Digital Services Act, fines up to 6 percent of the company’s revenue could be imposed or the platform may be forced to entirely close down European service. If wrongdoing is found in the course of the investigation, and penalties are successfully enforced, there may be significant implications for the future of social media regulation. A successful Digital Services Act could serve as precedent in the creation of strict big-tech legislation in other nations and international unions at a time of already increasing digital regulation. This recent legislation includes the proposal of an AI Regulation Act by the European Commission, as well as the sweeping Online Safety Bill in the U.K. With social media platforms until recently having very little liability for the content posted on their sites in countries such as the U.S. and the U.K., a successful Digital Services Act could become inspiration for new regulation. With the legislation serving as an example of how to effectively combat the increasing problem of disinformation online.


Despite the necessity of combatting disinformation and increasing transparency on social media sites, the implementation of the Digital Services Act has some potential negative ramifications. Human Rights Watch has highlighted that the legality of content is determined independently in each E.U. member state, with some member states having laws that restrict protected expression under human rights law. As such, if a user of a social media platform in a country which restricts this expression has their post removed as a result, the E.U. is essentially sanctioning this violation of the right to free speech. Additionally, Human Rights watch points out that the E.U. Commission has unchecked investigative and enforcement authority over the obligations of very large platforms such as Twitter, which could perhaps lead to abuses of power. In spite of these potential negative consequences, however, the Act provides a much needed incentive for social media platforms such as X to take accountability for the harmful content they host. The protections it introduces will hopefully serve as precedent in future digital regulation undertaken worldwide.

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