prospect | Three steps for Elon Musk if he’s serious about free speech on Twitter
Jameel Jaffer, director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Center, told me last week that Musk’s intentions may be good, but the reality is more complicated than he seems to think.
“It’s not just about raising the free speech dial, because there are always tradeoffs,” Jaffer said. For example, if there are no limits on harassment and abusive speech, people – especially women and members of minority groups who tend to be the targets – will leave the platform altogether.
“And this is not a victory for free speech,” Jaffer said. “Nobody wants a platform where everything happens.”
Even if viewed as generously as possible, Musk’s warped logic still falls into a common trap. It confuses First Amendment protections — which prohibit the United States government from intervening to ban speech through the courts — with the rules a private company establishes to conduct its business. (Remember to disregard the laws of other countries where Twitter operates.)
Like newspaper publishers, social media platforms generally try to meet at least some sort of standard for the content that appears under their brand. Unlike traditional publishers, of course, social media typically pulls that content not from its staff but from its users, who nonetheless must abide by house policies — the restaurant’s equivalent of “no shirt, no shoes, no on duty”. If they don’t, they risk getting banned or having their posts deleted.
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These rules are, of necessity, much more restrictive than just what is constitutionally protected. The Washington Post could posting nude photos and lots of swearing if we wanted to – there’s nothing legally stopping us from doing so. But its owners decided long ago that this type of content would alienate too many readers and advertisers, so The Post wisely chose to present itself as what has become a “family newspaper”. This is why Facebook, Twitter and other social media organizations have also tried to reduce pornography, misinformation and personal attacks. Through their rules and decisions, publishers attempt to reflect what is broadly acceptable to those who use it; there is an underlying notion of respect for “community standards”.
Some Musk skeptics made exactly that point last week, describing examples on Twitter of what the platform could become whether his “allow all legal content” idea was fully implemented – videos of pets howling while being slowly vivisected or of a decapitated journalist, or of someone stepping on small animals in high heels, or someone beaten to death or flayed alive or shot, with brain matter everywhere.
Later in the week, Musk showed his naivety again, Tweeter that former President Donald Trump’s social media startup, Truth Social, was born “because Twitter censored free speech.”
Well, not exactly, Elon. Twitter kicked Trump off the platform in January of last year, due to reasonable fear that after what happened on Capitol Hill on January 6, he would use the platform in the final days of his presidency to incite more violence. Twitter has made its ban permanent – and not all free speech advocates agree that endless exile was the right move. Trump responded by founding Truth Social, where he could cover up and provoke at will.
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Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a nonprofit organization that champions free speech, believes there may be better ways to foster free speech on Twitter. But they have little to do with the “everything is fine” mentality that Musk has in mind.
Nossel, the author of “Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All,” offers three improvements. First, a more efficient process for hearing calls from users who have been banned or whose content has been removed. The current system is often slow and opaque, she told me, and people should be able to quickly find out why the company acted the way it did.
Second, Twitter could do more to protect users who are beleaguered by abuse from others on the platform. A faster response time to complaints would be a step in the right direction. Despite improvements in recent years, Twitter too often remains a place of harassment and abuse.
And third, Nossel suggested that Twitter could be much more transparent about how its algorithms work: “Why do people see what they see? What content is paid? What is amplified? To his credit, Musk has talked about wanting to do this, but not as much as he has talked about just turning on the tap. Nossel rightly calls this “a very reductionist notion of free speech”.
As a Twitter aficionado myself – I’ve developed sources there, discovered breaking news, promoted my work, and met people who have become close friends – I hope Musk’s wacky ideas don’t will not be carried out.
If they do, almost everyone worth it will quickly flee, leaving the platform to the worst crazies and muggers. It is difficult to see this result as a noble victory for freedom of expression.
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