Musk’s push for “free speech” on Twitter: history repeating?

BARBARA ORTUTEY and AMANDA SEITZ

Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, is spending $44 billion to acquire Twitter with the stated goal of turning it into a “free speech” haven. There’s just one problem: the social platform has been down this path before, and it didn’t end well.

A decade ago, a Twitter executive called the company “the free speech wing of the free speech party” to highlight its commitment to unfettered freedom of expression. Subsequent events put the moniker to the test as repressive regimes cracked down on Twitter users, especially after the short-lived Arab Spring demonstrations. In the US, a 2014 article by journalist Amanda Hess exposed the ongoing nefarious harassment that many women have faced simply for posting on Twitter or other online forums.

In the years that followed, Twitter learned a thing or two about the consequences of running a largely unmoderated social platform. One of the most important of these was that companies generally don’t want their ads to run against violent threats, hate speech that turns into incitement, and disinformation. which are aimed at influencing elections or undermining public health.

“With Musk, his posturing of free speech — just leaving things as they are — that would be bad in and of itself,” said Paul Barrett, associate director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University. “If you stop moderating with automated systems and human reviews, a site like Twitter for a short period of time, you will have a cesspool.”

Google, Barrett noted, quickly learned that lesson the hard way when big companies like Toyota and Anheuser-Busch pulled their ads after they outpaced YouTube videos created by extremists in 2015.

Once it became clear just how unhealthy conversation had become, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey spent years trying to improve what he called the “health” of conversation on the platform.

The company was one of the first to use the “report abuse” button after UK MP Stella Creasy received a flurry of rape and death threats on the platform. The online abuse was the result of a seemingly positive tweet in support of feminist Caroline Criado-Pérez, who successfully campaigned for author Jane Austen to appear on the British banknote. Internet stalker Creasy sent to prison for 18 weeks.

Twitter continues to develop rules and invest in staff and technology that detects violent threats, harassment and misinformation that violate its policies. After evidence surfaced that Russia used its platforms to try to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election, social media has stepped up their efforts to combat political misinformation as well.

The big question now is how far Musk, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist,” wants to restore these systems – and whether users and advertisers will stay if he does.

Even now, Americans say they are more likely to be harassed on social media than on any other online forum, with women, people of color and LGBTQ users reporting a disproportionate amount of such abuse. According to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults last year, approximately 80% of users believe that companies are still “doing well or badly” dealing with this harassment.

Meanwhile, terms like “censorship” and “freedom of speech” have turned into a political rallying cry for conservatives frustrated that right-wing commentators and senior Republican officials have been kicked out of Facebook and Twitter for violating their rules.

Musk appears to have criticized President Donald Trump’s permanent Twitter ban last year for posts that the tech company says helped spark the January 6 uprising at the US Capitol last year.

“Many people will be very unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech,” Musk tweeted days after Trump was banned from Facebook and Twitter.

Trump allies, including his son Donald Trump Jr., have even begged Musk to buy the company.

“If Elon Musk can privately send people into space, I’m sure he can develop a social network that isn’t biased,” Trump Jr. said in a caption to a video posted to Instagram last April.

Kirsten Martin, professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame, said Twitter is constantly working to become a “responsible” social media company through its moderation system, its machine learning ethics staff, and who they allow to do so. platform research. The fact that Musk wants to change that, she added, suggests he’s focusing on “irresponsible social media.”

Twitter declined to comment on this story. A rep for Musk did not immediately respond to the message with comments.

New conservative-targeted social media apps, including Trump’s Truth Social, have not even come close to the success of Facebook or Twitter. This is partly due to the fact that Republican politicians, politicians and organizations are already attracting a large audience on existing and much better established platforms.

It is also partly due to the floods of inflammatory, false or violent messages. Last year, for example, the right-wing social networking site Parler was nearly wiped out when it became apparent that rioters were using the app to spread violent messages and stage a January 6 siege on the Capitol. Apple and Google have banned his app from their online stores, and Amazon has stopped providing web hosting services for the site.

Musk himself regularly blocks social media users who criticize him or his company, and sometimes intimidates journalists who write critical articles about him or Tesla. He regularly tweets to reporters who write about his company, sometimes mischaracterizing their work as “false” or “misleading”.

His popular tweets usually direct his many social media fans straight to reporters’ accounts to harass them for hours or days.

“I only block people as a direct insult,” Musk tweeted in 2020, responding to a reporter’s tweet.

Evan Greer, a political activist with Fight for the Future, said Musk’s lack of experience moderating an influential social media platform will be a problem if he successfully leads the company.

“If we want to protect free speech online, then we can’t live in a world where the richest person on Earth can just buy a platform that millions of people depend on and then change the rules to their liking,” Greer said.