Elon Musk says he is a champion of free speech. He says free speech is so important to him, in fact, that assuming he completes his deal to buy Twitter, he will reverse the ban on former President Donald Trump. This from a man who has personally blocked the Twitter account of the organization I lead, Public Citizen. And we’re not alone.
To be very clear, my organization didn’t troll Musk; we simply criticized him. He apparently took offense to our calling him out for downplaying Covid early in the pandemic and wanting to rush workers back to work and into danger.
How is Musk’s blocking of our Twitter account and those of other critics compatible with his proclamations that he loves free speech and hopes his worst critics stay on Twitter? It’s not.
(For those not familiar with Twitter, being “blocked” means we can’t see Musk’s tweets, follow him or contact him. Any Twitter user can block another, and Musk blocked us two years before he made his move to take over the company.)
How is Musk’s blocking of our Twitter account and those of other critics compatible with his proclamations that he loves free speech and hopes his worst critics stay on Twitter?
Musk says he loves the hurly-burly of argument and wordplay, but the evidence is that he — like Trump — is incredibly thin-skinned. Like many thin-skinned people, he tends toward swagger and tough talk. That the blustery billionaire who professes his love of free speech and debate actually avoids his critics isn’t so much ironic as it is characteristic of a type.
But Musk’s personal issues really aren’t that important. What is important is how he sets the rules for Twitter and how as its new owner he will conduct himself.
Musk says, for example: “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” But it’s not really clear what this means. A best guess is that he means Twitter should permit all speech unless it is illegal. But there’s no way he can really mean this. Start with the basic functioning of Twitter. Even though much or most spammy behavior on social media platforms isn’t illegal, if platforms like Twitter didn’t block spammy behavior, they would cease to function in any meaningful way (every account would be overrun with porn and junk ads). Musk says he wants to crack down on bots (automated Twitter accounts). Doing so would be good, but bots aren’t illegal speech.
OK, you might say, maybe spam is a special case. But then we must turn to what the actual law in the U.S. deems is “illegal” speech. And in the U.S., the First Amendment establishes various balancing tests between permitting speech and governmental interests. Certain speech is outright illegal, like criminal threats. But “the law” also says governmental bodies can impose reasonable restrictions on speech. You can’t blare a loudspeaker on a residential street at 3 a.m., for example. There are also some ways of communicating that wouldn’t be permitted, in the interest of protecting community interests, not just those of the speaker — a lesson that a Musk-owned Twitter should take to heart.
Beyond this, Musk is wrong in suggesting that Twitter should engage in as little content moderation as possible. Twitter isn’t the government, and there are good reasons it must play a different role in moderating content than the government does with speech.
Decades of internet experience has taught us that letting anyone say anything doesn’t advance speech. Instead, it destroys community, elevates bullies, targets racial and ethnic minorities and women and drives people out of conversations. The result is often more mean speech, fewer diverse voices and many voices silenced altogether. We get a louder conversation, but we actually get less free speech — not to mention more hate, frayed social bonds and sabotaged democracy.
For better and worse, the most important conversations are platformwide — social conversations.
How does this all relate back to Musk’s blocking Public Citizen? I actually think it’s a good thing that Twitter has a blocking function. It’s unfortunate that Musk chooses to use it against respectful critics, but the blocking tool is important to prevent people from being trolled, bullied, harassed or even just annoyed by specific people.
But the most important conversations on Twitter aren’t between individuals. For better and worse, the most important conversations are platformwide — social conversations. You can personally block people who spread election lies and stir up insurrectionist sentiment, for example, but you as an individual are powerless to stop the spread of those lies and the invitations to violence. Only Twitter itself can do that.
Musk has said Twitter is the public square. There are ways that analogy does and doesn’t hold up. What Twitter definitely is, however, is one of the world’s most important communications platforms. It is, or at least should be, a public trust.
It is playing with fire to have such a public trust owned by a single human being, especially one who thrives on being outrageous, is overly sensitive to criticism and doesn’t seem to have thought deeply about the platform he will soon control (or take seriously the lessons learned by those who have operated it over the past decade and a half).
And remember, Twitter is a global platform. Other countries balance free speech and other values differently than the U.S. The new European Digital Services Act, for example, will impose on very large platforms like Twitter an obligation to moderate content to protect against abuse, stop marketing to children and prevent hate speech.
As the new owner of Twitter, Musk would do well to quiet down his shoot-from-the-hip snark and instead take Europe’s thoughtful framework to protect the public interest seriously. We’re long past the birth of Twitter and social media, and we should be long past the naive view that unmoderated social media conversations are a social good. Unfortunately, his treatment of Public Citizen — especially contrasted with his treatment of Donald Trump — doesn’t make us very hopeful.