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Thomas Cranmer: Twitter and the Monty Python Business Model

Musk continues to develop the new free speech model for Twitter, drawing on comedy for new ideas and as a way of deflecting political criticism. By contrast, Ardern's approach involves less humour.

On Sunday I asked the question: would Twitter unfollow the Prime Minister given that, on the face of it, Musk and Ardern have very different ideas of how the public square should operate?

As it turned out, it was a question that the Prime Minister was also pondering. When questioned on Tuesday about Twitter’s change of ownership, Ardern observed that “it is fair to say we are in a bit of unknown territory at this point”. They had, it seemed, changed their relationship status to “it’s complicated”. Despite this setback Musk and Ardern both had a busy week, with each of them progressing their own vision of how public discourse should be moderated.

In my last article, I observed that humour was central to Musk’s view of free and open debate and this week saw confirmation of that. It started on Tuesday with him toying with the idea of asking twitter users to pay $20 per month for a blue check as a means of verification. When the author Stephen King unceremoniously shot him down, Musk’s response was to lower the price:

By Wednesday, Musk had firmed up the idea in his own mind enough to outline the basic details of the $8 per month blue check to the twitterverse, declaring “Power to the people!”:

His aim is to introduce a new revenue stream to Twitter making it less dependent on advertisers. There is also a desire to reduce the preponderance of bots that currently plague the site and to improve the general quality of the discourse. In his usual fashion, Musk was unapologetic about stealing a good idea from one of his comedy favourites - Monty Python.

Musk is currently in a no-win situation, a position which he enjoys and is accustomed to from his investment in Tesla. Yesterday he announced that “being attacked by the right & left simultaneously is a good sign”. In response to criticism from politicians and commentators he adopted his usual weapons of choice - humour and memes.

For instance, when the Democratic Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, criticised him for being a billionaire attempting to sell free speech for $8 per month, he responded with his typical boyish insouciance:

It has been reported that the new $8 blue check could be offered to users as early as next Monday. Other changes, such as to the content moderation committee and the introduction of a digital payment system will take more time but will no doubt follow in short order. One benefit that Musk has touted with monetization of the site is for users to make a micro-payment to a content producer to access, for instance, one story which would usually be behind a paywall.

By contrast, the Prime Minister’s week seemed to contain rather less humour. Ardern participated in the country's annual hui on countering terrorism and violent extremism - He Whenua Taurikura Hui, with the head of New Zealand’s SIS, Rebecca Kitteridge.

Ardern said New Zealand was a country that didn't believe in mass surveillance and Kiwis protected and deeply guarded their privacy and freedom. It was important to have a response that identified and acknowledged that potential radicalisation was often “very individualised” and it was important to look at the signs an individual may be showing rather than just focusing on ideology.

There is a sense however that Ardern is attempting to expand the legitimate need for surveillance of a very small group of potentially dangerous individuals to also cover people whose beliefs simply run counter to government policy or to the norms of woke culture.

That suspicion was reinforced by the TVNZ documentary Web of Chaos which looked at the internet's influence on modern-day life and included what the producers described as “a deep dive into the world of disinformation”. Whilst the documentary made some good points, there were some odd moments, including when the Director of the Disinformation Project made the astonishing claim that Kiwi mothers with interests in children’s clothes, healthy cooking and interior design were being drawn into “white nationalist ideals”.

The latest person to wade into the free speech debate is the Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt, who last night declared that he is “increasingly concerned about the rise of mis / disinformation.” He went on to state in a series of tweets that “of course, the free & open internet is vital to support freedom of expression & information, but these human rights are not absolute. They have to be balanced with other vital human rights, such as the right to life, the right to be safe & secure, the right to non-discrimination”.

There is, however, a very concerning sense in Hunt’s tweets that, rather than identifying and punishing the individuals that partake in unlawful hate speech, he and the government are more inclined to limit everyone’s free speech rights as the remedy.

It also seems to be deeply ironic that a government that is increasingly encountering criticism for a lack of transparency in its dealings, and which will no doubt draw ferocious criticism during the run-up to the next election over its performance, is seeking in some way to reprimand the public for misinformation.

Maybe Bryce Edwards is correct and the hate speech proposals from the government will be less than what some in the public fear. In his article yesterday, Edwards wrote, “the reality is likely to be much more prosaic – instead of Labour implementing far-reaching and radical reforms on speech regulation, Kiri Allan can be expected to simply make some tweaks to the current laws. Allan and Labour will be hoping a minimal or watered-down approach will satisfy those calling for hate speech to be suppressed more vehemently.”

There is certainly some logic to that argument but only time will tell what path the government ultimately decides to take.

After only a week of new ownership at Twitter, both Musk and Ardern seem to be charting increasingly different paths on their individual quests for control of the public square.

Thomas Cranmer is a pseudonym. You can read his columns here.

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