Let’s hope the self-proclaimed ‘free speech absolutist’ lives up to its title
Elon Musk was successful in his bid to take over Twitter. The world’s richest man struck a deal with the company’s board of directors to acquire the platform in its entirety for a cool $44 billion.
Musk first expressed his intention to change the social media platform after asking his audience what they thought of Twitter’s adherence to free speech principles. With the continued censorship of conservative positions and amid calls from the Biden administration to crack down on so-called “Russian disinformation,” the consensus was that Twitter had strayed from its original mission.
As soon as he himselffree speech wing of the free speech party,” Twitter hadn’t gotten any better than Facebook, YouTube, Reddit and any number of other platforms when it came to protecting political expression.
But Twitter still had an edge – journalists, politicians and influencers of every stripe use the platform as their primary means of spreading their ideas and having conversations about current events. As the de facto marketplace of opinions, Twitter has been and continues to be the most influential space for political discourse.
Like his vision of commercial spaceflight, internet satellites and electric vehicles, Musk saw Twitter not only for what it was, but also for what it could be.
“Freedom of speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital city square where issues vital to the future of humanity are discussed,” Musk said in a statement announcing the acquisition.
“I also want to make Twitter better than ever by extending the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeat the spam bots and authenticate all people,” he said, referring to some of the suggestions he’d crowdsourced from his massive 85 million following.
“Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the user community to unlock it,” he concluded.
Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter is just the first chapter in his effort to revamp the platform—to make it live up to its ideal of a “digital city square.”
Unlike the screeching and waving of Musk’s illiberal critics, free speech does not mean removing moderation altogether and turning the platform into an anarchic free-for-all. What it means is that if someone gets banned, they’ll know why they were — and ideally, the moderation policy won’t be ideologically or personally motivated.
Threats of violence, revenge porn, sexual exploitation of children, harassment, stalking and terrorism remain legally illegal in virtually every developed country. The right to free speech is not a shield against which to commit crimes. Nothing will change under Musk’s rule † it shouldn’t either.
Musksummed it up† “I hope even my worst critics stay on Twitter because that’s what free speech means.” Despite their collective collapse over the development, Twitter’s progressives can rest easy. They will not be banned for criticizing the new owner of Twitter.
So what now? For starters, Musk needs to expose the algorithms that have long plagued the platform — and change or remove them in their entirety if necessary. If users are banned, they need to know why they were banned and how they broke the rules.
Think of content suggestions and content restriction as the two evils of content-driven algorithms – the beating heart of any social media platform.
Radicalize algorithms. The left moves faster to the left and the right moves faster to the right, as each side is isolated from the crowd due to algorithmically driven content suggestions. Uncovering the algorithms will no doubt leave users surprised to find out how much manipulation has taken place and how much it has influenced socio-political discourse.
Shadow Ban – a measure that restricts the visibility of certain users without their knowledge – should be abolished completely. The risk of abuse is too great if a shadowy hand artificially limits the range of certain opinions and encourages other, “acceptable” points of view. How many conservative influencers have been systematically silenced and deplatformed without their knowledge? Only time and transparency will tell.
His next step should be to reinstate accounts previously banned for wrong thinking – the Babylon Bee, for criticizing transgender Admiral Rachel Levine; James O’Keefe, for the high crime of committing journalism; Steve Bannon, because of his political views and because he is essentially Steve Bannon; Alex Jones, for his “Abusive Behavior” when he joked about a CNN contributor in real life; and Meghan Murphy, who “wrongly” insulted Canadian trans activist and mischief maker Jessica Yaniv.
And the list goes on.
If Twitter has files — or logs — on its most problematic, high-profile users, Musk should release them. It would go a long way in facilitating healing and confidence.
As a digital city square, users should feel free to have discussions on all topics, no matter how sensitive – transgenderism, the pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, climate change, elections, and so on. May the truth prevail over the story.
And everyone should criticize anyone without fear of retaliation from the system — not just those on the establishment’s list of designated targets. No one should be banned from calling a man a man, or from correctly defining the term ‘woman’.
Facts don’t care about your feelings, and Twitter has no business law advice — or facts, for that matter.
As a platform for freedom of expression, Twitter must remain neutral on political agendas. Even if there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sides, people should be free to decide for themselves what to believe, support or oppose, without being forced to take a stand by hidden algorithms and content moderators with an ideological leaning.
Musk will no doubt face challenges from Twitter in his effort to open source those algorithms and reveal their inner workings to every prying eye and programmer on the internet.
Twitter’s board members and investors will be the least of his problems. The grunts — the mundane content moderators, coders, and the middle management decision-makers — were the ones who created the algorithms and executed the bans. The company’s internal culture fueled their actions. Musk has to clean the house.
Fortunately, with full control of the business, he can do just that. Elon Musk doesn’t have to drain the swamp. He just needs to break the dam and let the water flow freely. And when in doubt, he can fire any rogue employee who refuses to cooperate with the program.