perspective | Three steps for Elon Musk if he’s serious about free speech on Twitter 2022-05-01 06:01:20


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As the new owner of Twitter, Elon Musk has been promoting his passion for freedom of expression for the past week.

It also showed his confusion, ignorance, and utter lack of sophistication about how this precious concept really works.

“By ‘freedom of speech’ I mean what goes with the law. I’m against censorship that goes beyond the law chirp A few days ago. If people want freedom of expression, they will ask the government to pass laws for this. Therefore, transgressing the law goes against the will of the people.”

Jamil Jafar Manager Knight First Amendment Center at Columbia University, He told me last week that Musk’s intentions may be good, but the reality is more complex than he thinks.

“It is not just about raising the level of communication for freedom of expression, because there are always trade-offs,” Jafar said. For example, if there are no limits to harassment and abusive speech, people – especially women and members of minorities who tend to be the targets – will leave the platform altogether.

“This is not a victory for freedom of expression,” Jaafar said. “Nobody wants a platform on which anything can be done.”

Even if viewed as generously as possible, Musk’s warped logic still fell into a common trap. It conflates First Amendment protections — which forbid the US government to swoop in to shut down speech through the courts — with rules set by a private company to conduct its business. (Not to mention not respecting the laws of other countries where Twitter operates.)

Like newspaper publishers, social media platforms typically try to uphold at least some sort of standard for the content that appears under their brand. Unlike traditional publishers, of course, social media usually derives this content not from its employees but from its users, who nonetheless have to adhere to house policies – the equivalent of “no shirt, no shoes, no service” in a restaurant. If they don’t, they risk getting banned or seeing their posts deleted.

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These rules, by necessity, are far more restrictive than what the Constitution protects. Washington Post can Posting nude pictures and expletives aplenty if we want – there’s nothing to stop us legally. But its owners had long decided that this type of content would turn off too many readers and advertisers, so The Post wisely chose to style itself in what became known as the “family newspaper.” That’s why Facebook, Twitter, and other social media organizations have similarly tried to limit pornography, disinformation, and personal attacks. Publishers, through their rules and decisions, try to reflect to a greater extent what is acceptable to those who use it; There is a basic concept of meeting “community standards”.

Some Musk skeptics highlighted this exact point last week, describing examples on Twitter What the platform can become If the idea of ​​“allowing all legal content” is fully implemented – videos of pets screaming as they are slowly being dissected or a journalist beheaded, a person walking on small animals in high heels, a person being beaten to death, lashed alive or culled with a gunshot, with Having brain matter everywhere.

Later in the week, Musk showed his naivety again, Twitter That social media company, Truth Social, launched by former President Donald Trump, came into existence “because Twitter censored free speech.”

Well, not exactly, Elon. Twitter kicked Trump off the platform in January of last year, out of a reasonable fear that, after what happened at the Capitol on January 6, he would use the platform in the final days of his presidency to incite more violence. Twitter made his ban permanent — and not all free speech advocates agree that endless exile was the right decision. Trump responded by establishing the Truth Social, where he could hide and provoke whenever he wanted.

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Susan Nossell, CEO of PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for free speech, believes there may be better ways to promote freedom of expression on Twitter. But they have little to do with Musk’s “anything goes” mindset.

Nossell, authorDare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All.” It proposes three improvements. First, a more efficient process for hearing petitions from users who have been blocked or whose content has been removed. She told me that the current system is often slow and opaque, and people should be able to see why the company is acting quickly.

Second, Twitter can do more to protect trapped users from 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 often remains a place of harassment and abuse.

And third, Nossel suggested, Twitter could be more transparent about how its algorithms work: “Why do people see what they see? What is paid content? What is amplification?” To his credit, Musk has talked about wanting to do this, but not so much as he has. Its just open the tap. Nossell rightly calls this “a very reductive idea of ​​free speech”.

As a Twitter fan, I developed sources there, discovered breaking news, promoted my work, and met people who became close friends — I hope Musk’s annoying ideas aren’t carried away.

If they did, nearly everyone worthwhile would quickly escape, leaving the stage for the worst of the crazies and abusers. It is hard to see this result as a major victory for freedom of expression.