Elon Musk, self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist”, is trying to purchase Twitter for $44 billion. Brewing behind this scene is the EU’s anticipated Digital Services Act (DSA), which promises to regulate content, advertisement, and algorithmic processes on platforms like Musk’s Twitter.
There is a growing divide in the vision that powerful leaders have for the future of society and business.
On the one hand, we have tech CEOs using their social and financial clout to absurd ends (from cryptocurrency markets crashing over Musk’s tweets, to Zuckerberg controlling the very nature of how we ‘Like’ to show emotion online… and just how many billionaires have we sent to space?).
On the other hand, we have governments scrambling to regulate the consequences of a few rich men upholding the ad revenue model and kowtowing to shareholders for quarterly returns. This is what the DSA is hoping to do with online (mis)conduct.
Interestingly, the tension between Musk’s anything-goes “freedom of speech” and the DSA’s censorship reveals very human differences in the psychological blueprint of their authors. France’s digital minister tweeted that the DSA will apply to Twitter “regardless of the ideology of its owner” – but the tension remains.
What psychological factors is Musk overlooking?
First, individualist vs. collectivist cultures have different interpretations of privacy
When we decide whether to disclose things on social network sites, we evaluate the risks and rewards that come with our actions. Psychologists call this a ‘privacy calculus’, and it turns out that those who live in the EU have a different calculus to their US-based counterparts.
Musk’s cultural worldview is an individualistic one, favoring independence, uniqueness, and individual rights. The EU – itself a collective of countries – resembles a collectivist culture, favoring group harmony over individual benefits.
Research shows that collectivist cultures possess a higher degree of uncertainty avoidance, are more attuned to privacy risks, and place higher importance on ‘controllable’ social media encounters. Ring a bell?
Second, it’s all about relationship management
We’re innately wired with a need to belong. This means we possess a fundamental motivation to be accepted into relationships with others. According to the affordance management theory, this motivation is a strategic one where we engage with others in a way that facilitates our goals.
Since Musk’s culture is different to the EU’s, they have fundamentally different relationship goals. In fact, researchers have created a distinctive ‘European value profile’ that favors horizontal, harmony-egalitarianism based relationships (vs. the vertical, mastery-hierarchy fabric of cultures like Musk’s, where social inequalities are more tolerated).
What does this mean in practical terms? The DSA is the regulation of horizontal relationships manifest. It aims to place actors on equal footing to protect the collective. Musk’s vision of democracy is one that gives importance and priority to what each individual has to say. Tensions between these two visions will ease once the issue is empathetically understood through the lens of relationship priorities.
Third, in an Algorithmic Society, what does freedom of speech even mean?
According to the theory of planned behavior, we navigate the world through a thought-action link that assumes a degree of control over our actions.
Freedom of speech falls under this umbrella. You believe something internally, and proceed to share it in some way. Now, imagine you’re on your TikTok’s For You page. You’re shown videos by creators you do not follow, but based on your previous choices the algorithm thinks you’ll like them. You passively watch anyway. Is this inaction an exercise of freedom of speech? Is increased oversight over the algorithmic process (as the DSA pledges) a threat to this freedom of speech?
The arrival of an Algorithmic Society has diluted the thought-action link that governs our behavior IRL. In addition to cultural sensitivity to relationship motivations, a much more nuanced, perhaps even philosophical, examination of the thought-action link needs to happen before we can download our offline values to our online world.
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