A decade ago, Twitter executives, including CEO Dick Costolo, said the social networking site was “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” This stance meant that Twitter would defend the ability for people to post whatever they wanted and be heard by the world.
Since then, Twitter has been swamped by disinformation peddlers, governments misusing social media to incite ethnic violence, and threats from elected officials to jail employees for tweets they don’t like. Like Facebook, YouTube, and other Internet companies, Twitter has been forced to transform from a free speech hardliner into a speech babysitter.
Today on Twitter page by page rules prohibiting content such as child sexual exploitation content, coordinated government propaganda, offers of counterfeit goods, and tweets.”wanting someone to be the victim of a serious accident“.
Over the past 10 years, we have witnessed repeated clashes between the noble principles of the Silicon Valley social media founding generation and the sordid reality of a world in which “freedom of speech” means different things to different people. And now Elon Musk, who on Monday closed a deal to buy Twitter for about $44 billion, is stepping right into this complex story.
Successive generations of Twitter leaders since its founding in 2006 have learned what Mark Zuckerberg and most other Internet executives have learned: “Tweets need to go viral,” as Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said. wrote in 2011, or “I believe in giving people a voice” as Mr. Zuckerberg said in a 2019 speech, it’s easy to say but hard to match.
Soon, Mr. Musk will be faced with a gap between the idealized vision of free speech and the millions of difficult decisions that must be made in order for everyone to have a say.
His agreement to buy Twitter puts the militant billionaire, who is also the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, at the white-hot center of the global free speech debate. Mr. Musk did not elaborate on his plans after taking over Twitter, but he was bristling when the company removed posts and banned users, and said Twitter should be a safe haven for unrestricted expression within the law.
“Free speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is a digital town square where issues vital to the future of humanity are discussed,” Musk said in his speech. deal statement.
Mr. Musk is a relative layman on the subject, and he has yet to find the complex compromises in which giving one person a voice can silence others, and in which almost any space for expression can be overwhelmed. with spam, nudity, autocratic propaganda, child abuse and violent incitement.
“We need to protect free speech for our democracy to work,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “But that premise is a long way from the decisions that social media must make every day.”
Almost no place on the Internet or in the physical world is a zone of absolute freedom of expression. The problem of online expression is the problem of self-expression, period, with questions that have a few simple answers: when is more speech better and when is it worse? Who decides?
In countries with strong courts, community groups and media dedicated to holding politicians to account, it can be relatively harmless for elected leaders to berate their opponents online. But in countries such as Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Somalia, government leaders have used social media as a weapon to subject their critics to relentless verbal harassment, spread lies that are largely uncontrolled, or incite ethnic violence.
If Twitter wants to stop moderating speech on its site, won’t people be less likely to spend time where they can be harassed by those who disagree with them and bombarded with ads for cryptocurrencies, fake Gucci bags, or pornography?
The 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote that year gave Silicon Valley executives, US elected officials and the public a glimpse into what could go wrong when social media companies choose not to delve too deeply into what people say on their websites. Russian propagandists have reinforced the views of deeply divided Americans and Brits, further polarizing the electorate.
During Mr. Trump’s presidency — especially in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, and then as Mr. Trump and his supporters spread false claims about fraud in the 2020 election — Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube changed their minds about the role they played. in fanning the anger, lies, distortions and divisions that have left some people feeling exhausted and cynical about the world around them.
Twitter and Facebook, pressured from time to time by their employees, have taken extra steps to remove or flag posts that may violate their rules against false information and have fiddled with computer systems to prevent viral lies from spreading quickly. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube also kicked Trump off their platforms following the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot.
It was the moment of the Rubicon transition when the “must flow tweets” crowd acknowledged that it could and should do more to prevent people from using its online resources to spread information that could mislead or harm others.
Some of the calls for condemnation from Twitter and its peers may have been due to excessive speech control. Now, more and more governments around the world are forcing social media companies to move from a predominantly self-regulatory online expression to government-imposed rules.
New laws, including the Digital Services Act in the European Union, require Twitter and its peers to do more to clean up their sites of misinformation and abuse. In other countries, such as Vietnam, social networks run the risk of being prosecuted when people post what the government considers unflattering criticism. Twitter and other social networks have the potential to harm free speech and democracy when they interfere too little with what people post online and when they interfere too much.
Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St. John’s University School of Law, said the growing laws governing online expression have, in theory, taken away some power over speech from unelected Silicon Valley executives. But these leaders still have to make decisions about interpreting laws and making decisions about speech that they don’t control.
There’s no getting around the fact that Mr. Musk will join Mr. Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, TikTok’s Shuzi Choo, and Apple’s Tim Cook as a handful of corporate executives who have huge influence in granting or denying access to influential platforms for global discourse.
One of the paradoxes of the Silicon Valley revolution is that it has robbed old gatekeepers of information and persuasion, such as media moguls and political leaders, while creating new ones. Mr. Musk’s purchase of Twitter won’t change that. We may not want these digital media moguls to have so much power, but the reality is that they do.