As this magazine goes to press, Elon Musk, who is attempting to buy Twitter, has announced that, once he ascends to the helm of the micro-blogging colossus, a certain politician who was previously banned from the platform will be let back in. I’ll pop in with my usual disclaimer: We talk about tech here, not politics.
As this magazine goes to press, Elon Musk, who is attempting to buy Twitter, has announced that, once he ascends to the helm of the micro-blogging colossus, a certain politician who was previously banned from the platform will be let back in. I’ll pop in with my usual disclaimer: We talk about tech here, not politics. It doesn’t really matter who this politician is or whether you agree with the ban. The question is about whether a sensible process exists for moderating content and whether there will still be one if Musk completes his purchase.
The news of this impending change is causing a stir throughout the Internet. Musk has declared himself a “free speech absolutist”  and has said that he considers Twitter to be a public square, where people should be able to say whatever they want. Many are worried about what form this free speech absolutism will take. Twitter critics welcomed the arrival of the platform’s moderation policies as a way of restraining the hate, bullying, misogyny, and disinformation (otherwise called lies) that have become associated with the platform, and they worry about what less restrictive moderation could mean for the world.
As is often the case, though, the fine print tells a story that is missing from the headlines. Like most enigmatic billionaires, Mr. Musk has a way of carefully choosing his words and saying several things at the same time. He is clearly courting the users who departed from Twitter when the banned politician started a rival platform, stating that the ban was “morally wrong and flat out stupid” . But if you look to what he really has in mind for policy, the picture gets a bit cloudier. Musk said he does not believe in permanent bans, but he left the door open for temporary suspensions – and the removal of tweets – for speech that is “illegal or otherwise just destructive to the world.” He goes on to add, “I think if there are tweets that are wrong and bad, those should be either deleted or made invisible, and a suspension, a temporary suspension is appropriate but not a permanent ban.”
So what did Elon just say exactly? If you’re not going to allow tweets that are “destructive to the world,” you need some form of agent or entity that will determine whether a tweet is destructive or not. And once you work through the details of how to do that, it actually sounds quite a bit like moderation.
It is also interesting that Musk recently met with EU commissioner Thierry Breton and announced that he is “on the same page” with the EU on the proposed Digital Services Act , an expansive new law that would require social media companies to police their content more aggressively to remove hate speech and disinformation. He tucked his absolutism away for that meeting. These positions might seem incompatible, however, Musk has stated that he believes moderation should match the laws of the country for which it is intended. (To be fair, the Digital Services Act also has other features that Musk has said he agrees with, such as greater transparency and open algorithms.)
This notion that the platform should match the laws of the country seems in stark contrast to the concept of the free speech absolutism he is touting over here in the USA, and it appears to imply that he would happily comply with the rules imposed by countries such as Russia and China to censor the speech of dissidents. In other words, he won’t let his personal values get in the way of business.
The need to do business could indeed temper his aspirations for a free-for-all public square. Musk, always the Twitter enthusiast, was once sued for using his Twitter freedom to call a cave diver who rescued the boys soccer team from the cave a “pedo guy” . He later won the case, with his lawyers making the argument that just because you call someone a “pedo guy” doesn’t mean you are calling them a pedophile – that’s just the kind of stuff you say about people on Twitter when they don’t like your ideas.
If he nurtures an environment where that kind of trash talk flourishes, he might find that a lot of users will just leave. The high-tech community has this way of viewing itself in epic, historical terms as the inevitable vanguard for a new civilization, but the fact is, the only thing that makes Twitter important is that everyone thinks it is important. If news sources quit quoting it, if people quit trusting it, if the market it serves now as a near monopoly breaks into smaller markets aimed at more targeted audiences, Twitter loses – and we know Elon Musk doesn’t like to lose.
So maybe the new Twitter won’t be so different after all? Or to quote The Who: “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.”
Joe Casad, Editor in Chief
- Milmo, Dan. “How ‘Free Speech Absolutist’ Elon Musk Would Transform Twitter,” Guardian, Apr. 14, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/apr/14/how-free-speech-absolutist-elon-musk-would-transform-twitter
- “Elon Musk Says He Would Reverse Twitter’s Trump Ban,” CNN, May 10, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/10/tech/elon-musk-twitter-trump-ban/index.html
- Elon Musk Says He’s ‘Very Much on the Same Page’ as the EU on Social Media Laws,” by Adi Robertson, The Verge, May 10, 2022, https://www.theverge.com/2022/5/10/23065270/elon-musk-twitter-digital-services-act-dsa-european-union-eu-speech-laws-thierry-breton
- Groom, Nichola and Rachel Parsons. “Tesla Boss Elon Musk Wins Defamation Trial,” Reuters, Dec. 6, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-musk-lawsuit/tesla-boss-elon-musk-wins-defamation-trial-over-his-pedo-guy-tweet-idUSKBN1YA13U