Terrorism now fights in the perception dimension, using social media that offer them global reach to cheaply disseminate ever more shocking images, such as those of the GoPro cameras used by Hamas to record the massacres of Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023. These social media enable different types of action on perceptions : terrorizing minds, recruiting, and manipulating public opinion. Manipulating the perception of reality enables the shaping of ideals, and increases conflictualities, or actors' propensities to spark or fuel antagonistic transformations.
Thierry Breton recently confronted Elon Musk1 , criticizing his lack of moderation of the informational operations of Hamas or its supporters on Twitter. Since Elon Musk bought Twitter, facing a possible risk of bankruptcy, the company's workforce has been reduced to 1,500 employees, compared with the initial 8,000, which has notably impacted its moderation capacity. Elon Musk also posed as a freedom of expression advocate, even describing himself2 as a “free speech absolutist”.
Assuming this stance is sincere and not an economic alibi, Elon Musk is a noob when it comes to defending freedom of expression : long before he bought Twitter, many cyberactivists fought for freedom of expression, but never adopted his simplistic, absolutist stance. When the e-commerce directive was transposed into French law, cyberactivists did not demand that everything could be allowed to be published on the Internet, but only that postings should be judged by judges, not by private companies. It is undeniable that some content should be taken down : who would accept that details of their private life be exposed to the entire world population ? The simplism of Elon Musk's position can only undermine the defense of freedom of expression.
A similar position is used by pro-Russian actors on social media, who invoke freedom of expression to condemn the censorship of media relaying perception manipulation operations carried out by state or para-state Russian organizations, for example for the purpose of influence and destabilization in Africa. Here again, this position undermines the protection of freedom of expression, by attempting to instrumentalize it : freedom of expression is not the freedom to lie or manipulate opinions. For instance, exploiting informational vulnerabilities, Russian manipulations constantly accused Barkhane of supplying weapons to armed terrorist groups in the Sahel-Saharan strip, which Niger villagers believed, and which led them to attack a Barkhane convoy in Téra, western Niger3 . The outcome of the attack during this “non-spontaneous” demonstration : three villagers dead, seventeen civilians, seven Nigerien gendarmes and seven French soldiers wounded. Perception manipulation kills, and should in no way be considered freedom of expression.
However, when invoking the DSA directive to ask Elon Musk to improve moderation, Thierry Breton neglected to mention a strategic concern : requiring a company like Twitter to moderate its social media alone gives it de facto global power over opinions, which it could use as it sees fit. Especially since an obligation to moderate certain content is not a ban on censoring others. Twitter, for example, canceled tweets denouncing the rape of Central African women by Wagner's mercenaries.
But power over opinions is just as important today as military or economic power, as E.H. Carr described4 back in 1939. What content would be circulating on Twitter today if this company were Iranian, Chinese or Russian, or if it had been bought by Qataris ? In practice, the Nigerian President has been censored5 by Twitter, and the Ethiopian Prime Minister6 by Facebook : would it not have been more appropriate for those cases to have been handled by the courts in those countries ?
Even if moderation may have to be carried out quickly, giving this power back to courts would be the only way to avoid granting power over opinions on a global scale to private corporations, even if this would require considerable resources. The first problem is determining which courts have jurisdiction, and the geographical scope of their decisions. For example, it could be up to the Nigerian justice system to judge the posts of its President. But another problem arises with states or military juntas that themselves manipulate perceptions : how can we trust the justice of a military junta whose leaders lie at a UN assembly7 , or of a country like the Central African Republic, where the presidency hosts a troll farm set up by Russian entities ? The fight against perception manipulation requires more in-depth debates that take these issues into account : in any case, current debates and regulations are deficient.
where specialists will notice a symptomatic discrepancy:
"your platform is being used to disseminate illegal content"
"we have... reports about potentially illegal content circulating on your service"