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Musk’s Free Speech Crusade

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eye on the news

Musk’s Free Speech Crusade

Ending Big Tech censorship at Twitter will be trickier than it sounds, but it’s worth the struggle. April 26, 2022
Politics and law
Technology and Innovation
The Social Order

For Elon Musk, coming up with $44 billion was the easy part. What comes next, less so.

To the delight of many conservatives, Musk has purchased Twitter and announced that he will make the platform “an arena for free speech.” One can almost picture him storming into Twitter HQ, marching downstairs, and kicking in the rusty door to the content-moderation boiler room. Steam blows and bells ring as, with a mighty tug, he dislodges a giant iron lever from the “Less Speech” setting and wrenches it into the “More Speech” position. After a few more adjustments—a crank down on the “Spam” knob, a flip onward of the “Edit Tweet” switch—he returns to the lobby, instructs the astonished employees to stay out of the basement, and leaves.

Though (almost) no one thinks that that’s how content moderation works, many do seem to believe that Musk will end what they regard as Big Tech censorship by figuratively turning a few algorithmic dials. Musk, too, seems to take a rather simplistic view of the task before him. “If in doubt,” he says, “let the tweet exist.”

An “if in doubt” button might work tolerably well if content moderation weren’t so subjective, context-specific, and adversarial. Should Twitter remove tweets claiming that a child died of a Covid-19 vaccine? How about a tweet that celebrates “Victory for Russia” over a photo of a mass grave? (What if it’s a video of a mass execution?) Should a neo-Nazi group’s self-conscious agenda of “Isolating and Mass-Assaulting Minor Public Figures” go unchecked? What if the group encourages members to evade moderation by lacing their tweets with jocularity and irony? The boundaries will always be tested.

Limiting one’s objection to a claim of “political censorship” solves little. Musk might (or might not) have to decide whether to let Donald Trump resume his Twitter account. Trump was ejected for praising supporters as they participated in a riot. It begs the question to say that Trump was simply engaging in free speech. Like many content-moderation disputes, Trump’s case lacks a “correct” answer.

No matter what he does, Musk will draw strong criticism. He is promising to make speech on Twitter “as free as is reasonably possible,” and that “reasonably” will be doing a lot of work. Musk will not be a wizard with a “free speech” wand. He will be more like the referee in a grudge match between Team Red and Team Blue. How often do rivals concur on a referee’s close calls? And in this game, the two sides don’t even agree on the rules.

There are worse things than having the new owner of a major social media service tie himself to the mast of free speech. But if what the Right wants is more heretical thoughts on Twitter, Musk might go ahead and offer them one. Even alternative social media services such as Parler, Gettr, and Truth Social have learned (often the hard way) that content moderation is both inevitable and difficult. Do you dislike content moderation? Musk might ask. Or do you simply distrust the moderators?

Instead of giving any political faction the impression that it will like Twitter’s decisions, Musk should try to increase all Americans’ faith in Twitter’s capacity for sound decision-making. Many now perceive content moderation as an elite project—an attempt to exert gatekeeping control over social media. “Disinformation” is what powerful journalists and intellectuals discuss in sober and self-important tones at conferences on “democracy.” It’s the kind of thing Hillary Clinton and Prince Harry and Katie Couric claim to worry about. Musk is on solid ground, therefore, when he asks whether Twitter should leave hyper-liberal San Francisco. He should combat the notion that content moderation is something done by coastal liberal elites, for coastal liberal elites, to satisfy the sensibilities of coastal liberal elites.

Under the current setup, “hate speech” is turning by degrees into “opinions progressives find distasteful.” Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar was recently asked if she thinks the statement “There are only two sexes” should be banned from social media. Her response was an evasive word salad. (As Conor Friedersdorf notes, the answer should have been: “No, of course I don’t think [that]. We always want Americans to be freely able to discuss contested issues of our time.”) Musk took note when Twitter suspended the Babylon Bee’s account for pronouncing Rachel Levine, the transgender assistant secretary for health, its “Man of the Year.” Though Musk cannot set the dials in the “right” way, he can demand that a new balance be struck, with clear rules set by a group with a wider set of priors.

Some of Musk’s other suggestions have potential. He is interested in reorienting Twitter around subscriptions, for instance. Customers with skin in the game might engage in more respectful dialogue. Conversely, a paid model would release Musk from the grip of advertisers, who tend to disfavor letting the freest of free speech sit next to their copy. But Musk, whose Twitter deal includes billions in loans, might need advertisers, along with their taste for stricter content moderation, to maintain the platform’s revenue. Another of Musk’s ideas is to reveal Twitter’s algorithm to the public. The main winners in that event could be spammers and hucksters looking to manipulate the product. Still, Musk’s impulse is sound. Twitter could restore confidence by helping users understand when and how the spread of content is boosted or blunted.

For years, Twitter has been supporting Bluesky, an independent company that aims to decentralize social media. In essence, Bluesky would provide a protocol on top of which competing services could operate. Users could interact with one another while using services with distinct newsfeed algorithms and content-moderation filters. Some services might be community-governed. Some might be designed for children. Some might be endorsed by a news network or a political party. User control would prevail. No central authority could ban a user or block a post. Meantime, it would be hard for prominent users—such as Musk—to obtain reach across the system.

Does Musk believe in Bluesky? Will he seek to accelerate its progress? In a nation with an epistemic divide—a country where many right-wing people believe the 2020 election was stolen and many left-wing people believe that thousands of unarmed black men are killed by police every year—running a massive social media platform is a bootless task. (Does Musk like congressional show hearings?) Our disagreements run deep, and they have little to do with what’s allowed on Twitter. Rather than own what he just called “the digital town square,” Musk might soon see the merit in owning something better described as a network of semi-autonomous civic groups.

“We’ve established what kind of woman you are,” Churchill says to the young socialite in the apocryphal anecdote; “now we’re just haggling over the price.” It’s Musk’s claims about free speech, such as that he is a “free speech absolutist,” that have made the headlines. But as soon as he’s pressed—What about spam? What about hate speech?—he says, Oh no, not that, not quite, I don’t have all the answers. We’ve established that he’s no “free speech absolutist”; now we’re just haggling over the price. Is that such a bad place to be?

Musk has also said that he wants to make Twitter “maximally trusted.” Perhaps that’s the aspiration to which conservatives should pin their hopes.

Photo by Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/picture alliance via Getty Images

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