When Twitter pulled out of the EU’s voluntary Code of Practice on Disinformation, European Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton of course took to Twitter to respond:
Twitter leaves EU voluntary Code of Practice against disinformation.
But obligations remain. You can run but you can’t hide.
Beyond voluntary commitments, fighting disinformation will be legal obligation under #DSA as of August 25.
Our teams will be ready for enforcement.
— Thierry Breton (@ThierryBreton) May 26, 2023
Breton has a presence on open source, decentralised rival Mastodon – but barely uses it. Twitter, for now, remains the place where the important things get said by Commissioners.
Věra Jourová, Breton’s Commission counterpart, sought to explain what had happened – Twitter had “sought confrontation” she said.
In the early months of Twitter under Musk’s leadership, the site may have become more erratic and its content more skewed towards extreme views, but staying there made sense for European Commissioners like Breton and Jourová, and for the Directorates General like Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs and Justice.
Three months ago being on Twitter was not a reputational risk as a Commissioner. From now on I am not so sure.
The Digital Services Act comes into force 25 August, and Twitter is classed as a Very Large Online Platform under the act – and hence has obligations to comply with rules on combatting disinformation – exactly the topic of the voluntary code from which Twitter has just withdrawn. Non-compliance can lead to a company being fined up to 6% of its global turnover.
It is one thing for Twitter to leave a voluntary code, but quite another for it to face legal proceedings for non compliance.
Of course any legal case against Twitter would take years to wind its way through the courts, but the more important and pressing question, shorter term, is the reputational damage – to those Commissioners who are criticising Twitter, but are still using the platform.
I can just imagine a question in a midday briefing: “Mr Breton: you keep criticising Twitter, but you personally continue using it, even though alternatives are available. Does that not make you a hypocrite?”
The co-leader of Germany’s SPD, Saskia Essen, has left Twitter so as to avoid this sort of hypocrisy (her motivations, in German, are explained here). How bad, I wonder, do relations between Twitter and the Commission have to get before we see some Commissioners doing the same? And then, once we do, Twitter’s centrality to the Brussels bubble news cycle also begins to crack.
This is how Twitter’s pre-eminence in EU politics is going to end. The question is when exactly, and how swiftly, that is going to happen.