How Elon Musk's college dorm rooms view free speech.
Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, accepted the takeover offer for Twitter on Monday. He has been tweeting ideas related to "free speech" in regular intervals over the past few days.
These tweets, which are interspersed with jokes and memes on his chaotic timeline, carry significant weight. They are likely to indicate how the megabillionaire intends to reform social media sites if he closes the deal.
They are... not promising.
Musk now appears to be a philosopher king, whose aphorisms or stated principles could transform one of the most influential public squares online. These tweets show that Musk has not considered the many complex issues he will face while managing the company. He's doing it in a manner that is likely to demoralize those who could help him realize any vision he may have.
Here are some thoughts on his most recent tweets.
Tweet #1: Musk's initial attempt at defining free speech raises more questions than answers. It starts with the question of matching law.
Twitter is a company that has users around the globe. Many of these users reside in countries with very different, and sometimes diametrically opposing, rules on speech. Musk will abide by the new policies of the European Union for social media platforms that include moderation and open algorithm, as well as the strict rules of authoritarian governments that severely limit freedom speech. How? Is it possible to comply with authoritarian state laws without compromising his previous position of refusing Russian news sources via his Starlink satellite broadband service, because he is a "free speech absolutist".
This is not to mention the obvious fallacy of laws on speech in a nation reflecting "the will of people." Twitter operates in nondemos and semi-democracies, where the public has very little input on the law. The most robust democracies around the world are currently trying to catch up with the new speech challenges presented by the internet. Musk doesn't believe this is a clarifying principle.
Musk's introduction of a principle could make Twitter unusable. Twitter already conforms to U.S. law because its content moderation is protected under the First Amendment. Based on Musk's comments about Twitter's content moderators being too restrictive, it seems that Musk is suggesting that Twitter is a place where anything is legal under U.S. law. Musk is a tech executive who cares a lot about the quality of products and what it means for Twitter's usability.
Ben Collins of NBC News, a reporter covering disinformation and extremism has noted that online forums and social media platforms that were intended to be completely unregulated have been overwhelmed by spammers, extremist harassers and bot networks. Also, child pornography, which is illegal but will surface in unregulated spaces, and other vicious bigots who seek to intimidate users. Moderation is not the same as free speech. In a recent segment on Rachel Maddow, Collins said that moderation is difficult -- it's very hard. "In reality it's an arts, not a science." Collins explained that social media sites have to constantly make unanticipated judgments about taking down material that crosses a red line, even if it isn't illegal, or to make spaces functional. Musk may have his own rules.
Algorithms, which social media platforms use to prioritize user feeds and maximize engagement to increase their bottom line, can have enormous implications for the types of speech that a platform considers to be worthy of public attention. Musk should not abandon any algorithm and maintain Twitter's chronological order. He should be ready for criticisms about what his algorithms mean for speech in public. Speech is not about what you say but also who hears it.
Tweet #2: Another example of a simple principle being disguised as a deep one. There's no way to determine how upset each side is in a debate. Nor is there consensus about what constitutes "far right" or "far left". It is possible that Musk could use something similar to the Facebook strategy to tweak the algorithm to favor right-wing media sources to protect his business model and gain approval from right-wing pundits. This would be a bid for perceived balance between the left and the right. The idea that such an enterprise is neutral is a lie. It's a political game, involving value judgements and influenced by profit motives. Musk has a financial incentive to balance Twitter if it trends to the right due to Musk's takeover.
Another problem is that free speech views don't always match up with political opinions. Musk seems to believe that free speech is a right-wing hobbyhorse. However, the reality is that most Americans today favor aggressive government censorship against the spirit of The First Amendment. Meanwhile, some left-leaning individuals, such as myself, are skeptical about Big Tech's ability, for example to censor political disinformation while not stifling any political dissent. They favor moderate moderation and a light hand. How could a combination of people on the left and right lead to the right answer regarding free speech?
Tweet #3: Musk's last notable tweet features a meme mocking Vijaya Gadde (Twitter's top lawyer), who oversaw the moderation team that controversially stopped the circulation of a New York Post article about Hunter Biden in 2020. Musk described the decision as "extremely inappropriate."
Musk's objection to this particular decision is my position in this instance. Musk's method of communicating his opinion was rude and dominant. His tweet, as expected, sent harassers and racists to Gadde. Musk may expect her to leave, or plan to fire her, but it's still a poor and unprofessional way to criticize an executive at a company that you are planning to supervise.
Even if Gadde leaves the company, it sets an unfortunate precedent. Other employees (and potential hires!) will notice and may conclude that Musk would rather publicly bash people he doesn't agree with in front his millions of followers than have a serious private conversation. This could encourage loyalist behavior and drive out some of the most talented people. Musk can criticize Gadde as he pleases, but if Musk really wants to improve Twitter and make it a place where people can freely express their ideas, this is not likely to be a good way to do so.
Musk's tweets about free speech avoid any serious consideration of the fundamental problems posed by Twitter and all other social media platforms. Talking about matching the laws between countries is not a north star. It is precisely because these issues are so complicated and contentious that the internet has created categorically new questions regarding speech that didn’t exist before the emergence of these platforms. These issues require intelligence but also humility, curiosity and careful thinking. We hope Musk will be able to grasp this concept in due time.