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Elon Musk takes Twitter out of the EU disinformation code

by Ana Lopez
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Twitter has withdrawn from the European Union’s code of practice on online disinformation, according to the bloc’s internal market commissioner Thierry Breton.

In a tweet last night – some confirmed earlier reports of Twitter’s imminent departure from the EU Code – Breton issued a blunt warning to the social media platform: telling Twitter it cannot hide from incoming legal liability in this area.

“Twitter is leaving the EU’s voluntary code of conduct against disinformation. But obligations remain. You can run, but you can’t hide,” wrote Breton – a reference to obligations the platform is legally required to meet as a so-called very large online platform (VLOP) under the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA).

“Apart from voluntary commitments, starting August 25, fighting disinformation is a legal obligation under #DSA. Our teams will be ready for enforcement.”

The pan-EU law, which came into effect in November, requires VLOPs like Twitter to assess and mitigate systemic risks to civic discourse and electoral processes, such as disinformation.

The deadline for VLOPs to comply with the obligations in the DSA is three months away.

A request for comment emailed to Twitter’s press office produced an automated response with a poop emoji.

The previous management at Twitter signed the platform to the voluntary EU Code on Disinformation in 2018. But Twitter’s current owner, billionaire Elon Musk, seems determined to pick a fight with the EU over speech moderation — contradicting previous comments he made personally to Breton when Musk claimed to be on board with the bloc’s digital rulebook.

This is an expensive fight for Musk to choose. Violations of the DSA can result in fines of up to 6% of global annual turnover.

The Commission has also warned that serious, repeated non-compliance could result in access to a service being blocked, jeopardizing the prospect of Twitter losing access to a region of some 440 million consumers.

The original EU Disinformation Code had required Twitter to take steps to curb the spread of false information on its service by targeting associated advertising revenue, tackling bots and fake accounts, providing consumers with tools to report disinformation and enable researchers to study.

In June 2022, the Commission unveiled an improved version and announced a Transparency Center to monitor compliance.

Importantly, it also announced that adherence to the Code would count towards signatories’ compliance with the DSA. So that Twitter is now deliberately backing out – with just three months until the law bites – indicates that it is turning the bird in the bloc’s broader digital services rulebook.

Before Musk came along, it’s fair to say that Twitter never really excelled at destroying bot networks or otherwise purging toxic nonsense. However, since he took ownership of the platform last fall, after his $44 billion purchase was completed, there has been a clear and calculated pullback — with clearly damaging moves by Musk propelling the platform in the opposite direction. Such as drastic moderation staff cuts and a massive increase in the price Twitter charges outside researchers to access data through its API, hampering outsiders’ ability to study issues like disinformation – to address two of the myriad acts of operational Musk’s vandalism has had the effect of destabilizing veracity and encouraging trolls and mayhem agents to run amok on Twitter.

The EU fired an early warning shot at Musk in November when it publicly said Twitter had “huge work” ahead of it if it wanted to avoid violating the DSA, including specific areas for name checking, such as disinformation. That was followed, in February, with another warning that Twitter was failing to meet its reporting obligations under the Disinformation Code. So it was probably only a matter of time before Musk formally pulled the plug on the one piece he technically can.

But while the Code remains voluntary, as noted above, the EU has linked it to broader DSA compliance – as de facto guidance to meet the latter’s firm obligations for VLOPs to address disinformation. So Twitter’s deliberate departure increases regulatory risk — essentially inviting the Commission to penalize blatant rule violations or risk the law becoming a flop.

As we reported last year, this collision course was always a strong possibility when Musk took over Twitter. It seems increasingly like an inevitability — one driven by the billionaire’s goal to advance a far-right political ideology that demands he support disinformation so the seeds of anti-democratic conspiracy theories can fly. (As Charlie Warzel put it in a recent Atlantic Ocean article: “[Twitter] has undoubtedly transformed under [Musk’s] leadership in an alternative social media platform – one that provides a haven for far-right influencers and promotes the interests, prejudices and conspiracy theories of the right wing of American politics. “)

Musk’s transformation of Twitter into a far-right Stan site can certainly take flight in the US; under the constitutional protection of freedom of speech, the worst he can do is ruffle a few feathers and drive progressive users off his platform (so basically punch himself in the wallet – even though we know he has wealth to burn).

But Musk’s trajectory of promotional encouragement for conspiracy bs puts him on a direct collision course with EU regulators who have resisted blatant anti-democratic manipulation. So brace yourself for what looks to be an expensive fight.

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