Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter for $44 billion dominated headlines. Presuming the deal goes through as expected, there is uncertainty about what Musk plans to change. There is a case for optimism; Musk’s ownership of Twitter provides the world with a fresh opportunity to consider how freedom of speech can flourish on a social media platform. How should it play out and what should Musk implement?
Before the deal, many had in the back of their minds that they, or perhaps someone they followed, could be banned from Twitter, temporarily suspended, or have tweets removed. Only then for the platform to give a vague reason why it took such action.
Musk, an outspoken advocate for free speech, has made one of the most significant moves for free speech in taking ownership of the company. Competitor platforms like Gettr, Parler, and Trump’s platform Truth Social, all saw the issues with Twitter and sought to create their own alternative venues.
But Twitter is a giant and competitors are a long shot away from being viable alternatives. The simple fact is more people have been using Twitter for a long time—the competitors know it. The most challenging part was that the largest and most influential platform for sharing ideas came with seemingly amorphous policies, highly questionable double standards, and history of shutting people out of public discourse.
Under the ownership of Musk, Twitter now has the possibility of becoming a legitimate free market of ideas. That is quite a heavy task, but there are credible steps the platform can take to move towards being a healthy conductor of free speech.
By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.
I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.
If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.
Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022
Ditch the Disinformation Dogma
Especially in recent years, the public has witnessed social media platforms remove posts and even ban individuals from their platforms for “disinformation.” Twitter has been no exception to that.
Perhaps one of the most notable examples of censorship was when Twitter locked The New York Post’s account due to the Post publishing a story on Hunter Biden’s Laptop ahead of the 2020 Presidential election.
Platforms that make it a point to moderate “disinformation” are plagued with several valid questions. To those who throw around the accusation of disinformation: What experts are they citing? Are those experts immune to being bought off? What authority do they have to determine that these experts are trustworthy?
These are hard questions for any platform to honestly answer, especially when they stake their reputation on being unbiased. Besides, public discourse has shown that seeking confirmation bias is more common in recent years. The remedy is to allow more information and more perspectives, not less.
Having a bias in permitting what is and isn’t allowed only drives people away to seek alternatives. When there is no legal concern, the solution is to let conflicting viewpoints come into contact and let the chips fall where they may.
If Musk wants to take free speech seriously on Twitter, he will need to get the company out of the business of arbitrating truth and falsehoods as much as possible.
Increase ModerationTransparency, but Keep Pseudonymity for Users
Transparency and accountability are buzz words frequently thrown around the tech industry but are seldom implemented in a noticeable way.
To the extent Twitter has active content moderation policies, they need to be transparent. Twitter’s moderation policies cannot be implemented according to a double standard. Musk flirted with making the tweet promotion algorithm open source, that is, public. Laying out how the content algorithm works is as transparent as it gets. However, it is uncertain how serious of a proposal that is.
Musk has also mentioned that all users should be authenticated to confirm that they are not bots, but broadly Musk should shy away from addressing inauthentic accounts in this manner. Perhaps some sort of Turing test could find the human in the botnet haystack, but users shouldn’t be identified—anonymity is an invaluable aspect of flourishing free speech.
And authenticate all real humans
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 21, 2022
As a post by the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes:
Any free speech advocate… willing to require users to submit ID to access a platform is likely unaware of the crucial importance of pseudonymity and anonymity. Governments in particular may be able to force Twitter and other services to disclose the true identities of users, and in many global legal systems, do so without sufficient respect for human rights.
Accountability is the other side of the Twitter content coin. Twitter should reduce the amount of information it tracks on its users and ensure that private conversations through direct messaging (DM) remain confidential. Twitter could implement end-to-end encryption for DMs. It’s not enough for Twitter to say it doesn’t use the information. Guardrails that prohibit the company from collecting private information through DMs and sophisticated algorithms must exist. They will ensure the minimal potential for that information to be misused.
Twitter has organically grown to be a staple town square for folks and their ideas to meet. What will separate tomorrow’s Twitter from yesterday’s is the company taking a step back on what it enforces on its platform and being honest about what little it will enforce.
As Musk takes Twitter to the great potential it has in being a conductor of free speech, we look forward in hope at the chance for a founding principle of western society to be exercised at an unforeseen scale.