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Elon Musk, bots and free speech on Twitter

South African billionaire Elon Musk threatens to suspend the agreement to acquire Twitter, one of the largest social networks on the planet. The reason would be the lack of evidence that only 5% of users would be fake accounts, the so-called “bots”, or robots. Research shows that these “fake” accounts can be up to four times more than what Twitter says, and anyone who thinks that Musk’s concern would only be with “fake news” or freedom of expression. In fact, it is economic: as the main asset of the social network is its social and political influence, especially with the press, evidence that matters may be being distorted by bots reduces quite the price of Twitter. But regardless of Musk’s interests, do the bots affect free speech?

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The bots are “a piece of code that imitates the human interaction online”, in the definition of Tamer Hassan, CEO of Human Security, an agency specialized in defending digital attacks. Apart from the official robotic profiles – those who provide some kind of service and those who follow them know that they are not human –, bots disguised as ordinary people have been used not only to swell the number of followers of some accounts, but to coordinate actions in different profiles to spread messages that are not always true or even commit crimes.

When talking about bots and freedom of expression, inactive accounts, propagators of malware (malicious software), practitioners of phising (data theft) and “bots of the good”. The debate revolves around the coexistence of ordinary users with accounts that would be spreading disinformation on networks to benefit or harm politicians, companies and other interest groups. A software that controls bots can tweet 1.500 messages per minute, spreading wrong data quickly, changing habits, ways of evaluating a subject or making

The big question that affects freedom of expression is whether Twitter is able to suspend bots without cancel or censor ordinary users, real people with controversial but legitimate opinions in a democratic environment. In an interview with the Washington Post, Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, expressed concern about the adoption of measures proposed by Musk, such as forcing everyone to use their real name on social media, which could prevent people living in totalitarian governments from using a pseudonym to make real criticisms, without suffering reprisals. An alternative pointed out in the report by Jafeer would be the identification for Twitter of users on the platform, but not publicly. That way, Twitter could still “authenticate all real humans,” as Musk asked, without banning anonymity or aliasing.

According to Francisco Milagres, technology expert and corporate advisor , another element that must be weighed in this balance between censorship and the real possibility of spreading lies on a large scale is the fact that small groups with a progressive bias control the information. Instagram, he points out, is a classic case of this control. “What hinders the debate today is the fact that people are informed in knowledge bubbles within the social network and make decisions based on that”, he says. In this scenario, the bots increase the problem with their automated behavior, with filters created to influence mainly groups of undecided or uninformed groups.

Another item that would also get in the way of the war against the harmful potential of bots – trying at the same time to protect freedom of expression – is the performance of the so-called checking agencies, with a progressive bias, which would have the role of determine whether information is true. Some maintain their own bots, such as the “bot Fátima”, from the agency Aos Fatos.

Such agencies, however, are not exempt – they have already been questioned and some have been condemned for marking news as false when they were not. Aos Fatos, for example, has already been ordered to pay compensation to Revista Oeste after the decision of 41 th Civil Court of the São Paulo Court of Justice. This demonstrates the danger of leaving the task of defining what is true in the hands of a certain segment.

For legislation advisor and founder of Go New.co, Anderson Godz, author of book the “Age of Contradictions“, today there are not only 3 powers as identified by Montesquieu, but currently six, namely: Executive, Legislative, Judiciary, Press, Social Networks and the sixth would be the mobilization of people represented by movements such as the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter. This is the context in which this discussion of Twitter’s bots is set. So ordinary people have more lookouts on social media. This represents a not well defined equation of who should act and how, what are the rules, who would be the watchman of these watchmen.

At the same time, Godz sees what he calls “digital medieval armor ”: bots unidentifiable would be profiles dressed in armor that makes them stronger and untouchable and, thus, excesses end up occurring. In this sense, the sixth power, of mobilizations – influenced by the bots -, uses tools of the fifth power, social networks, to “shatter all the other four powers”. And these clashes between powers are in the context of this discussion. “What happens today is that companies and institutions do not have all the credit they used to have and at the same time they are encouraged to take a stand in the face of various conflicts in the world. This would all be in a larger scheme in which there is not only one side”, says Godz.

The ideal world would be that only bots of disinformation were banned. Which is very difficult in practice. But if Musk, in fact, closes the acquisition of the social network, prevents unfair profile cancellations, and promotes a technical fight against malicious bots , something will have already advanced in security and freedom of expression. on twitter.

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