What Elon Musk Gets Wrong About Free Speech

7 minute read
Mchangama is the CEO of the Future of Free Speech Project at Vanderbilt University, a Senior Fellow at FIRE and author of Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media

Elon Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter has led to panic among prominent pundits and politicians horrified by prospect of Twitter amplifying the most radical voices of the unwashed online mob. But while elite panic may be directed at Big Tech and Silicon Valley billionaires, the consequences of this phenomenon cascades downwards. Ultimately, it’s ordinary people and unpopular minorities, not the platforms and their wealthy owners, who have their speech and access to information restricted.

On Muskian Twitter, many fear that hate speech and disinformation has the potential to go more viral than fact and truth, threatening the very fabric of democracy. These concerns have been reinforced by the sacking of staff responsible for making Twitter less toxic and more trustworthy. Adding to the unease is Musk’s irresistible urge to use his new status as “Chief Twit” to “own the libs” with partisan tweets riling up liberal establishment opinion and catering to conservative grievances about rampant “wokist cancel culture.”

To throw more fuel on the fire, Musk reinstated Donald Trump and other controversial figures. He also fired vocal critics, and then portrayed himself as a persecuted free speech martyr when advertisers fled from his dumpster fire.

Musk´s erratic behavior does not bode well for the future of free speech on social media, as his support for this principle is seen as upholding of racism and conspiracy theories as gospel. Nor, is it a good sign that many people whose livelihoods depend on free speech, want to purge ideological opponents from the platform. Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik, argues that “that for some speech to be free, other speech has to be limited.” The European Union—a club of 27 democracies—has even threatened to ban Twitter from Europe, unless Musk reels in hate speech and disinformation.

But you don’t have to be an Elon “stan” or subscribe to Musk’s half-baked free speech philosophy to worry that free expression isn’t taken seriously enough by global, digital platforms. Legally the protection of free speech is primarily a relationship between government and citizens. But a thriving culture of free speech depends on broad societal tolerance of ideas that fly in the face of polite opinion and established orthodoxy.

Indeed, social media companies’ content moderation policies matter. No single government in history has ever been able to exert such extensive control over what is being said, read, and shared by so many people across the world in real time.

Two decades ago, the architect of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, argued for a flourishing culture of free speech based on the ideal of on a decentralized Internet and warned that “impos[ing] involuntary filters on someone else…is censorship.” But with the rise of huge, centralized platforms attracting hundreds of millions of users, the dark sides of social media became much more visible. Previously, white supremacists had little reach. But on Facebook and Twitter, bigots could suddenly coordinate hatred and abuse at scale, that previously would be confined to fringe blogs with little traction.

It became increasingly clear that if social media companies hoped to attract and retain a critical mass of users—and advertisers—with very different ideas about what is offensive, hateful, or even true, they would have to more actively police their platforms. They would also have to protect their integrity from bad actors, including authoritarian governments with no qualms about disrupting democratic processes.

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The 2016 Presidential election and the empirically dubious narrative that Russian disinformation was decisive for Trump’s victory saw elitist attitudes change drastically. Social media, it was broadly agreed, had become a clear and present danger to democracy. But for those demanding the return of gatekeepers there was a silver lining to the centralized amplification of hate, harm, and hoaxes. If you could persuade or strong-arm Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter into purging offending as well as lawful but awful content, its visibility would drop exponentially.

Genuine concerns about how to moderate content at scale were super charged. Panic in the government and traditional media manifests in condemnations and regulation, or the threat thereof. As a result, platforms try to appease their critics through constant and often contradictory changes to their terms of service and content moderation based on the specific controversy of the day. In the interest of self-preservation, the platforms abandon any principled approach that—through the lens of PR, stakeholder management, or profitability—cannot be defended in the abstract against the specific instance of harmful or offensive content. Musk’s banishment of Ye following deranged anti-Semitic outbursts is a good example that even “free speech absolutists” are not immune to this dynamic.

Traditional media has an important focus on the harms of social media. But the ensuing narratives often exaggerate the share and impact of illegal and “harmful” content, while paying much less attention to the negative consequences of elite panic on the voice of users around the globe. From July to Dec. 2021, Twitter took action on 4.3 million accounts, suspending 1.3 million and removing more than 5 million pieces of unique content, citing highly subjective reasons such as “hateful conduct.” We don’t know how many of those silenced were genuinely inciting hatred or violence, but the risk of collateral damage to free speech is real.

The recently leaked “Twitter Files” have yet to document the supposed systematic collusion between the Biden campaign and Twitter, but still revealed how powerful politicians and groups seek to influence social media behind the scenes. And Twitter has long since admitted that its decision to remove a critical New York Post story on Hunter Biden was a serious mistake.

In November, Meta reported that it removed 3 million fewer pieces of hate speech on Facebook than in the previous quarter, since its AI has become better at recognizing “humorous terms of endearment.” Possibly much of the deleted content affected minorities using slurs amongst themselves. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, YouTube launched a crackdown on pro-Russian propaganda. But caught in the dragnet were dozens of videos that translate Russian media into English, exposing how pro-Kremlin voices spread conspiracy theories and advocate for genocide.

That said, there is a strong case to be made that the incessant focus on the dark sides of social media obscure all the benefits that we take for granted. From amplifying racial justice protests, providing visibility to the LGBT+ community, and giving a voice to dissidents chafing under censorship and propaganda. Social media has allowed activists and journalists to counter the lies and propaganda of authoritarian states as well as document their crimes and human rights violations—often in real time.

In short, there is a compelling case to be made for why free speech should be strengthened, not weakened on social media. But the sceptics are unlikely to be persuaded by a conception of free speech based on partisan grievances and trolling. Instead, Musk should focus on demonstrating how the benefits of a more robust commitment to free speech on Twitter will outweigh the harms.

He could do worse than look to Berners-Lee’s decentralized ideal. Providing users more power to determine what kind of content they’re confronted with would empower ordinary people at the expense of centralized, top down corporate and government imposed censorship. Musk would still face a myriad of dilemmas on where and how to draw the line between protecting speech and mitigating genuine harms. But to ensure a social media environment that more consistently errs on the side of speech than silence, Musk needs to demonstrate that he is not merely in it for the LOLZ.

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