Elon Musk’s Twitter ‘free speech’ mirage
By every measure, Elon Musk is a brilliant entrepreneur, but a trustworthy arbiter of free speech? I think not. Musk boasts his purchase of Twitter is designed to return Twitter to its glory days as a 280-character free speech fortress, where users could post whatever their whim, with no consequences to them or to Twitter. Easy to promise, impossible to deliver.
Memo to Elon: If you intend to jettison “The Twitter Rules” (a.k.a., Twitter’s content moderation policies), you can kiss a lot of Twitter’s digital advertisers goodbye — and welcome a new cadre of global regulatory sheriffs determined to prevent Twitter from reprising those glory days. If you want to transform Twitter into an ad-free version of Telegram or Gab, go right ahead.
Advertisers will not tolerate having their ads amplified alongside harmful speech. Case in point: The Coalition for a Safer Web (CSW) recently petitioned Twitter to purge the rabidly antisemitic neo-Nazi “National Justice Party (NJP)” Twitter account. The NJP account had more than 50 major U.S. corporate ads amplified off it. Advertisers contacted by CSW were livid when they learned their ads were legitimating a radical, violence-inciting white supremacist organization.
In the hoopla surrounding Musk’s bold free speech narrative, let us not forget that it didn’t take long after Twitter was created in 2006 for its executives to find out that there are a lot of bad actors, who easily began hijacking Twitter to spread hate, incite terrorism, empower autocrats, facilitate sexual trafficking, and enable criminal enterprises – just to name a few of the Twitter transgression realities requiring constant in-house content moderation.
As the reality of bad actors crashed Twitter’s “free speech” party, a whole new cottage industry of content moderators armed with reams of guidelines sprung up — compelling Twitter to bob and weave between arbitrary censorship and public safety. And each country where Twitter operated developed its own rules and regulations governing Twitter’s conduct — only complicating any effort by Twitter’s management to enforce a “one size fits all” user guideline policy.
Case in point: Last Saturday, the European Union adopted the Digital Services Act (DSA) compelling social media platforms to remove flagged hate speech, terrorist propaganda, and other content deemed illegal by the European Union. Does Musk believe that he can run roughshod over the DSA, thus risking billions of dollars in fines?
At least among European Union members, the DSA will finally end the slipshod self-regulation and arbitrary censorship policies that each social media platform adopted. It will be one of many rude awakenings Musk will have when he takes charge.
For the same reasons that the EU adopted the DSA, Musk’s acquisition of Twitter adds more urgency for Congress to finally hold social media companies accountable for basic wrongs enabled by their platforms against the American public.
Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and other mainstream social media platforms each has its own rules and regulations prescribing what speech is permissible and what is not — and not one is liable for the consequences of its policies.
Harmonizing these arbitrary rules into one code of understandable standards would make Mr. Musk’s job easier. That is why the Coalition for a Safer Web proposed the formation of a new Social Media Standards Board (SMSB). A SMSB would not only develop and monitor compliance with an impartial code of harmful speech, it would also provide social media users recourse to protest platform violations of the code and monitor algorithm amplification. The SMSB could be empowered by Congress to lift Section 230 immunity from social media platforms that consistently violate the code.
The rising tide of domestic extremism and the potential return of Donald Trump to Twitter should be reason enough for Congress and the Biden administration to stop whistling past Twitter’s graveyard. Enabling Musk to establish a whole new set of “free speech” Twitter content moderation policies is no solution to the plague of harms Americans endure from privately managed social media platforms.
Marc Ginsberg served as U.S. Ambassador to Morocco under President Bill Clinton; he previously served as Deputy Senior Advisor to the President for Middle East Policy, and was a legislative assistant to Sen. Edward Kennedy. He is currently president of the Coalition for a Safer Web, a non-profit social media watchdog group.
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