Musk’s takeover of free speech on Twitter won’t necessarily mean more free speech
March 25, Elon Musk tweeted “Freedom of expression is essential to the functioning of a democracy. Do you believe that Twitter strictly adheres to this principle? Musk then purchased the platform to implement changes that will supposedly turn the platform into a free speech haven. However, Musk’s proposed “freedom of speech” changes may not promote greater freedom of speech on the platform and may in fact undermine it.
Musk offers to severely limit content moderation, saying Twitter should only be concerned with removing illegal content. According to For Musk, “if people want less freedom of expression, they will ask the government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is against the will of the people. This means that obscene or harassing content posted on Twitter would be left out, as long as the speech is legal in the user’s country.
Yet only “respect for the law” can turn Twitter into a cesspool of offensive, yet legal, content. Conservative social media sites Parler and Gettr, for example, initially promised to only moderate speech that violated US law. The platforms were quickly overrun with so much obscene, violent and racist content – legal content in the United States – that they became virtually unusable for the average person. Although some users liked being able to post extremely offensive content, many others were dissuaded from using Parler and Gettr, limiting the exercise of free speech to a few exceptional people. It could also happen on Twitter. A platform unusable for the majority of people is hardly able to fulfill its “societal imperative” to host free and inclusive discourse around the world.
Also, rather than maximizing free speech, moderating content according to a country’s laws would be tantamount to aiding government censorship in many countries. What happens when Iran wants information about a user posting profanity? Or when the Vietnamese parliament bans more anti-state speech? Or when France further expands its definition of prohibited “hate speech” and enacts more aggressive censorship? Musk himself, who grew up in apartheid South Africa, should be particularly sensitive to the fact that following “the laws of the land” is not the same as following the “will of the people”.
Another major change proposed by Musk is to “authenticate all human users” in service of his larger goal of banning all bots from Twitter. While it’s not yet clear exactly what he means by “authenticate”, the process will likely require the collection of some form of personally identifiable information. If passed, this policy could seriously undermine and chill free speech on Twitter, especially for marginalized groups and political dissidents who rely on their ability to remain anonymous.
Twitter can’t reveal information it doesn’t have, but if Musk moves forward with “authenticating all real humans,” Twitter will contain more personally identifiable information from its users, making it will make a bigger target for powerful actors seeking to unmask their critics. Since its inception, Twitter has aggressively defended the privacy rights of its users with private and public actors. In this way, the platform has mimicked First Amendment jurisprudence, which provides strong protection for anonymous political speech in most circumstances. If Musk wants to promote free speech on Twitter, he must be careful not to undermine the platform’s established tradition of free speech.
That said, however, Musk’s takeover isn’t necessarily bad news for the social media platform. In fact, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey mentioned that Twitter “belongs to Wall Street and the advertising model” was his biggest regret, and that Musk “taking it back to Wall Street is the right first step.” Dorsey is right: by taking the company private, Musk is in a better position to implement (likely unprofitable) changes to Twitter that will advance broader social goals and ensure the company’s long-term viability. This includes promoting the openness of Twitter’s algorithm and providing end-to-end encryption of Twitter’s private messaging.
More importantly, Musk can use his influence to address the public’s deep crisis of trust in Twitter. The mostly negative response to Musk’s ‘free speech’ poll is just the tip of the iceberg; many Americans are convinced that mainstream social media platforms are the cause of many societal ills. Widespread distrust of Twitter’s content moderation decisions undermines its position as a credible source of news and information. To combat this, Musk should work to dispel the notion that content moderation is something forced upon ordinary Americans by and for progressive elites in order to satisfy the sensibilities of progressive elites. Like Dorsey Remarks“Elon’s goal of creating a ‘maximally trusted and broadly inclusive’ platform is the right one.
One way Musk is doing this is to hire an ideologically diverse group of moderators to update Twitter’s terms of service and create greater transparency in Twitter’s appeals process. Musk could also tweak Twitter’s moderation scheme slightly to no longer remove content based on the use of gendered pronouns, allowing for more discourse on a particularly controversial topic.
Conservatives celebrating Musk’s acquisition of Twitter rightly note that “hate speech” is sometimes a euphemism for non-progressive views. But Twitter, on the whole, has not acted as an agent of the progressive political agenda. In fact, it has an outstanding record of promoting and protecting free speech when moderating content and defending its users’ right to anonymity. Musk can tweak the algorithm to allow a little more of the speech he prefers. But if he really wants to “unlock” the “extraordinary potential” of Twitter, he must make sure he doesn’t chill speech in the pursuit of free speech.
Trevor Burrus is a research fellow and Nicole Saad Bembridge is a legal associate at the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute.