Twitter's Free Speech Musquarade
Elon Musk claims he wants absolute free speech on Twitter. That'd be a nightmare, but I'm not buying it
First, an apology. It’s been a while.
I blame my baby. Well, not him really, as much as his daycare. Since he started daycare I have been sick seven times: fevers as high as 104, coughs, vomiting and stomach bugs and even a bout of pneumonia. He’s been mostly fine, sniffly for a day or two and then quickly recovered. Daycare seems to be a system for importing germs into our home.
And then, just when I thought we were finally done, illness number seven was Covid.
I’ve managed to dodge the ‘Rona for two years, have been vaccinated with three doses and still wore high-filtration masks in public places, but there’s only so much you can do to avoid the virus.
Covid wasn’t so bad for me, though the baby had a bit of a rough time of it. I’m still a little fatigued but finally (mostly) back to normal. So here we are.
I’m going to try to publish once a week for the next few weeks because I owe you all some content and I have thoughts. You will hear them. I’m sorry.
A month ago, when Elon Musk bemoaned Twitter’s lack of free speech and asked “is a new platform needed?”, I thought he was about to set up another ‘free speech alternative’ to Twitter. Like Gab, Parler, Gettr, FRANK Speech and, most recently, Donald Trump’s own TRUTH Social, these platforms form their own little echo chambers but never come close to challenging the dominance of the blue bird.
Musk had other plans. Twitter’s board agreed to sell him the whole company for £34.5bn. The deal, if approved by Twitter’s shareholders, will put the social media home of politicians, journalists and opinion formers in the hands of one opinionated multibillionaire.
Elon promises a new direction for Twitter, committing to making its algorithms open source, “defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans”.
The latter point poses some challenges. The theory, I suppose, is that people act more responsibly online if they have named and identifiable accounts. But these real name policies have their limits. The majority of the abuse, harassment and threats I receive online is from people proudly using their real names.
Today, Twitter authenticates verified accounts (their famous ‘blue tick’) by demanding to see photo ID. Will every Twitter user in the world agree to send Musk a copy of their passport in order to stay on the site? That would pose risks to dissidents and insiders, exclude lots of younger users who might not have passports or driving licenses, and put an enormous amount of data and power in Twitter’s hands. It could scare off some of the nastiest harassers, but would also stifle legitimate subcultures like LBGT Twitter.
The real focus of the takeover, though, is ‘free speech’. In his statement, Musk proclaims that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”. Yesterday he went further, explaining
“By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law…Going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people”.
This was the reason that Musk’s purchase was greeted with excitement in the most extreme corners of the Internet, members of far-right forums and Telegram channels hoping that their time has come again.
Free speech debates on the Internet are as old as the Internet itself. In the anarchic days before the big platforms, free speech online was a given. Most people could say whatever they wanted on their personal websites with little fear of consequences, but that’s because nobody read it in the first place!
Terrorists, neo-Nazis, violent anarchists and extremists of all kinds flourished in their own little niches. If they did somehow get kicked off of a host, there was always another.
The purest example of the anything-goes approach to online speech exists the ‘chans’, anonymous messageboards with few rules and a spirit of chaos. On 4chan and 8chan, racist memes and caricatures sit alongside revenge porn, conspiracy theories and political manifestos. The chans gave rise to the hacker collective Anonymous, the QAnon movement, many popular Internet memes and, most disturbingly, several mass murderers who posted during their attacks.
Rise of the Platforms
The rise of the big platforms changed things. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and the rest made it easy for extremists to gain mass exposure and followers, thanks to easy sharing and recommendation algorithms. On the other hand, it gave these platforms tremendous power: with a few clicks, they could shut it all down.
Twitter’s approach to freedom of speech was originally quite permissive; the company was forced organically into taking tougher positions by public pressure and market forces. For example, the American Nazi Party had a Twitter account until 2017, when the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville ended in the murder of an anti-racism protester.
More recently, Twitter banned anti-vaccine propaganda during the coronavirus pandemic and, in late 2020, began to remove accounts promoting the QAnon conspiracy movement. Of course, Twitter’s most dramatic move came on 8 January 2021, when the company banned its most famous user, then US president Donald Trump, in the wake of the insurrection attempt at the Capitol.
Each of these moves provoked a backlash and, often, spawned a rival. The first was Gab, founded in 2016 by Andrew Torba. Gab has become a magnet for neo-Nazis and antisemites, perhaps encouraged (ironically) by racist posts made on Gab’s official Twitter account.
But Gab was just too extreme for many US conservatives. A succession of Twitter clones focused on building a site that would be like Twitter but a little bit more right-wing. The latest and supposedly greatest of these clones is Truth Social, built by Donald Trump himself. Truth had a bumpy launch in the USA, with MAGA supporters flocking to join and hear from their leader, only to discover a confusing truth: Trump himself doesn’t appear to use it.
Is Musk promising a free speech free-for-all on Twitter? Not quite. Spam, too, is a form of speech and he’s committed to stamping it out. But it’s not clear yet what Musk’s apparent promise of near-absolute free speech would look like.
So much focus has been given to whether or not Donald Trump will be allowed back onto the platform that broader questions have been buried. Will Musk welcome back the American Nazi Party? The QAnon promoters who claim that world leaders are murdering children to drink their blood? The people who tried to organise a coup in America? Once, a group of neo-Nazis photoshopped me into a concentration camp crematorium. Will they be allowed to do it again?
When Musk says that he supports all free speech within the law — US law, of course — remember how far the law goes. All of these are lawful speech in the US:
encouraging people to kill themselves
posting photos of murdered and mutilated children
posting Jihadi beheading videos
making your profile picture a swastika
Making your username “Lynch the N******” or “Gas the Kikes”1
campaigning for abolishing the age of sexual consent
posting long manifestos arguing that all Jews should be tortured to death
Will Musk allow them all?
These questions aren’t new. Every free speech platform faces challenges to its policies. Gettr bans Nazis. Parler bans porn. Truth Social puts content warnings on controversial posts. Even 4chan bans doxxing and removes livestreams of mass shooting attacks carried out by its members. ALL of them ban spam. Every platform ends up a censor in the end, because platforms need to censor to survive.
No Digital Sovereignty
And even a platform utterly committed to absolute free speech in US law has limits. There’s no true sovereignty online. British, European, even Russian and Chinese law dictate what content is allowed in their countries.
Will Musk bow meekly to the ‘will of the Chinese people’ when China, where half of all Teslas are made and 25% are bought, demands he block posts about the Uighurs? Will he say that the First Amendment applies to the globe?
It’s not just national borders that make digital sovereignty impossible. Google and Apple decide which apps are allowed in their app stores so they can be used on phones and which, like Gab, get banned. Telegram, which often refuses to censor extremists on its platform, was forced to restrict chat functionality for some of its worst offenders by the Big Two’s app stores (while keeping the bad content available on the desktop app).
Musk must know at least some of this because it’s obvious and because he has people to tell him. My gut feeling is he’s bluffing here. He’ll talk the talk, welcome back the Ivermectin crew and QAnon, remove disinformation labels and call it a win. So perhaps the changes to Twitter’s policies won’t be all that dramatic in the long term.
But critiques of Twitter’s polices were always a bit misplaced. People were rarely (not never, but rarely) banned for their views alone; often the formal reasons for bans were for harassment, doxxing or incitement to violence.
Of course, mistakes are also made. Moderation decisions are made by overworked, low-paid staff, who see the worst of humanity — death, sexual abuse, torture — and have to make instant judgments under time pressure. No surprise that some people are banned who shouldn’t be, or, on the flipside, that masses of harassing content slips through the net.
Almost everyone accepts that platforms need some rules. Free speech absolutism is off the table. The challenge for all social platforms is where to draw the line and who should have the right to draw it. Will Elon Musk draw that line wisely and responsibly? And how many times will he be forced to redraw it as he faces the same old challenges?
Ultimately, though, a lot of what conservatives dislike about Twitter was never the platform, its leadership or its rules per se. It’s the people, the left-liberal lean of Twitter’s userbase. They don’t like feeling in a minority, mocked or dismissed for their views. If Musk brings a conservative influx back to Twitter, perhaps those people will finally feel at home, even without any major changes to content moderation. Or perhaps they just want someone to argue with.
I didn’t censor the word Kike because I’m Jewish and it’s not a word I find viscerally hyper-offensive so I wanted to preserve the shock value of the phrase. I did censor the N word because I’m not black and I felt like it wasn’t my shock value to deploy.