Even Elon Musk doesn’t know what he means by free speech

Elon Musk looks at his phone while sitting in the passenger seat of a car.
Elon Musk appears at his cellphone on the grand opening of a brand new Tesla manufacturing unit close to Berlin in Could 2021. | Odd Andersen/AFP through Getty Photographs

The billionaire says he needs to make Twitter a free speech platform. That’s simpler stated than performed.

Modifications are coming to Twitter. And if we’re to imagine Elon Musk, these modifications will remodel the app within the title of preserving free speech on-line.

However what precisely does that appear like or imply in your account? Not even Musk is aware of but, and these modifications received’t be coming in a single day (Musk’s provide of $44 billion to purchase the corporate is anticipated to take a number of months to shut).

Even when we don’t know the small print, any potential change to Twitter — a platform utilized by almost 400 million folks together with a few of the world’s most influential politicians, celebrities, and public figures — can have a significant impression. Already, many conservatives are hoping that Musk will reverse the corporate’s ban on former President Donald Trump (for now, Trump has stated that he received’t return to Twitter if given the possibility, however that would change). On the similar time, some activists, civil rights leaders, and Twitter workers are apprehensive about whether or not Musk’s absolutist method to free speech will undo the progress Twitter has made prior to now a number of years to cut back the prevalence of harassment, hate speech, and misinformation.

“The thought of permitting extra speech seems like a really optimistic factor,” stated Renee DiResta, a researcher on the Stanford Web Observatory. “The query is, how is [Musk] going to stability that with the popularity that content material moderation has at all times existed within the curiosity of group creation on-line?”

Musk has talked so much in regards to the virtues of free speech, however he has no expertise managing that on a social media platform the place a whole lot of thousands and thousands of tweets are posted a day. The billionaire has provided just a few clues, nonetheless, about what his general method to content material moderation on Twitter may appear like. In an interview on the TED convention earlier this month, Musk stated he plans to “err on the aspect” of leaving content material up — regardless of how controversial — and solely taking down content material that clearly violates the regulation, corresponding to an incitement to violence. This may be a stark departure from Twitter’s present content material moderation insurance policies, which, in recent times, have been geared toward limiting hate speech, harassment, and different varieties of content material on the platform it deems dangerous.

Within the press launch this week about his acquisition of Twitter, Musk additionally steered less-controversial modifications to Twitter, together with “making the algorithms open supply to extend belief, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all people.” These are all areas that critics have referred to as on Twitter to enhance prior to now, and in some circumstances, the corporate is already engaged on enhancements. So we’ll need to see whether or not Musk can execute and the way lengthy it’s going to take. A lot of these anticipating him to take the helm need him to turbocharge characteristic enhancements like authenticating all customers, and to dial again what they view as Twitter’s heavy-handedness in moderating folks’s speech on-line.

In the meantime, Musk’s motivations for getting Twitter appear considerably difficult. Probably the most outstanding points of this takeover saga is that Musk has publicly stated that, for him, it’s not about earning profits, it’s about selling free speech. This free speech slogan has earned Musk the help of many conservatives who really feel that Twitter and different social media corporations unfairly discriminate towards them. For Musk, it’s greater than that: This deal can also be a method to exert affect over a significant media platform that’s utilized by a few of the most necessary politicians, celebrities, and leaders on the earth. Given Musk’s personal public battle with the SEC over his tweets, proudly owning Twitter supplies a beneficial means for Musk to be the one to set the foundations.

“If unsure, let the speech … let it exist. If it’s a grey space, I might say let the tweet exist,” stated Musk on the convention. “I do suppose that we wish to be simply very reluctant to delete issues.”

What Musk is speaking about displays the identical ideology on which social media corporations like Twitter and Fb had been based: Let anybody say what they need on-line. However in apply, almost each main platform — and much more latest free speech absolutist ones like Parler, Gettr, and Trump’s personal Reality Social — have put into place some guidelines towards issues like hate speech, harassment, or inappropriate content material. That’s as a result of in the event that they don’t, these platforms are likely to devolve into cesspools of hateful, detrimental, or spammy content material that isn’t good for customers or advertisers. For instance, when trolls flood somebody with focused harassment, they are often exercising their free speech, however their intimidation techniques are additionally probably discouraging that consumer from sharing their very own viewpoints.

“One of many issues that we’ve seen on each single social platform for the reason that invention of the web is that some folks’s free speech is deployed to attempt to forestall different folks’s participation and meeting,” stated DiResta.

In his TED interview, Musk did acknowledge some limitations to the thought of letting free speech stay up on a regular basis. He stated that, in some circumstances, Twitter might probably deprioritize content material to make it much less distinguished in folks’s feeds.

“In a case the place there’s maybe a number of controversy, then you wouldn’t wish to essentially promote that tweet,” stated Musk. “I’m not saying that I’ve all of the solutions right here.”

Twitter does have folks in place to determine the solutions to those arduous questions. At the moment, Twitter’s moderation and security groups, which reportedly embrace a whole lot of workers, assist make selections about when to downrank, label, or delete tweets that violate its insurance policies. It’s unclear what Musk plans to do with these groups, and a few on the firm are apprehensive he’ll in the reduction of.

There’s additionally a worry that Musk’s plan to “open up” Twitter’s algorithm might show tough. The thought is that in circumstances the place the corporate down-ranks sure tweets, Twitter ought to make it clear to customers what’s occurring. As Musk put it in his TED interview, this might present customers that “there’s no behind-the-scenes manipulation, both algorithmically or manually.”

It’s an concept that, in principle, even a few of Musk’s critics on content material moderation agree with, however in apply, it wants much more fleshing out. For starters, Twitter has many algorithms, so which one is Musk referring to? Additionally, how would Twitter share its proprietary expertise with out giving out its secret sauce, thereby permitting its rivals to repeat its enterprise?

There’s nonetheless so much we don’t learn about how Musk would run Twitter. However what we do know is that his views on how a lot Twitter must be moderating content material are drastically totally different from his predecessors’ in working the corporate. If dealt with nicely, that would end in a extra open, sturdy realm of dialog on one of many world’s most influential social networks. But when dealt with poorly, that would imply that issues like harassment, hate speech, and misinformation will solely worsen.

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