Freedom of speech is whatever Elon Musk says it is
A digital dystopia no science fiction writer could have foreseen.
“This is a battle for the future of civilization. If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead”. Also sprach Elon Musk in full superhero mode this week. Twitter's new owner is going to save the world, presumably in order for civilisation to leave for Mars on his SpaceX rockets. So how's all that going?
Musk claimed earlier in the week that Apple had been threatening to ban Twitter from its all-important App store because it didn't agree with free speech. A bro-to-bro meeting with the Apple boss Tim Cook in the Cupertino donut seems to have sorted that out. Though whether Apple is buying adverts on Twitter again isn't entirely clear.
Then the European Union got in on the act, threatening Musk with a Euroban if Twitter didn't conform to its policies on content moderation and hate speech. Musk did a Zoom with Thierry Breton, the commissioner for banning stuff, which seems to have calmed the waters there too – for the time being.
Then of course there is the UK's Online Safety Bill which will no longer ban “legal but harmful” speech, but still promises a fine of 10% of global revenue for violations, either of Twitter's own terms of service, or new restrictions on harmful content to young people. That would mean a fine of a cool $500 million - a serious problem for a loss making company which is losing advertisers faster than Elon can tap out tweets.
But hey - no one said it would be easy. Musk says he is still committed to his freedom of speech crusade. He's even promised to publish “the Twitter files on free speech suppression” which allegedly took place under the dark lord, Jack Dorsey. “The more I learn the worse it gets” Musk declared ominously “The world should know the truth of what has been happening at Twitter”.
We have yet to see any evidence of this suppression of conservative views, apart from Donald Trump who has of course had his account unbanned. Musk says the that Trump’s deplatforming was unjustified under Twitter's own terms of service and that the former president's removal alienated half of American voters. That's probably right. Though his reinstatement could well alienate the other half. Perhaps fortunately for Twitter, Trump hasn't taken up the offer.
There are reports that Musk’s censorship files contain revelations about the suppression of newspaper reports on Hunter Biden's lost lap top. This mislaid MacBook was alleged to contain compromising material on his and his father Joe Biden's financial activities in Ukraine. But Musk’s predecessor, Jack Dorsey, has already apologised for this so it’s hardly a revelation.
Musk calls himself a “free speech absolutist”, who lets anything go so long as it's legal. However, he's already rolled back from the true faith under pressure from regulators and advertisers. He assured the European Union this week that he supports their rules on content moderation in the Digital Services Act. He promised moreover that “Our approach to policy enforcement will rely more heavily on de-amplification of violative content: freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach”. That's a revealing phrase: free speech is clearly a relative concept as Musk reserves the right to “deamplifiy” it as necessary.
One of the perennial complaints from the right is that Twitter actively promotes “woke” voices while using various algorithmic means of suppressing content that isn't supportive of the liberal left, such as JK Rowling tweets. Others, like the Brookings Institution, claim the reverse is true: that Twitter algorithms disproportionately amplify the right. My own experience is that Twitter invariably cleaves to the liberal left, often tediously so. But that is only to be expected since its active users are, and have always been, mostly young, educated and broadly on the left. It's demography not conspiracy.
I suspect that Twitter, like most social media companies, is less interested in promoting partisan politics than generating revenue by boosting traffic. It's all about engagement. The more clicks the more bucks from advertisers, and anger drives clicks. There have been repeated claims that social media companies deploy algorithms that actively promote conflict and confrontation on their platforms.
Before he took control, Elon Musk promised that he would reveal all about Twitter's algorithms, and I hope he honours that. And also his promise to end the cult of anonymity, which makes it impossible to stop the racist trolling of footballers like Marcus Rashford. All he has done so far is offer blue ticks of authenticity to anyone willing to pay $8 month. This subscription programme had to be stalled after it was discovered that bad actors were using it to set up fake accounts in the names of celebrities and businesses. What did he expect would happen?
Does any of this matter? Yes it does. Twitter is hugely influential out of all proportion to its actual reach. Journalists are addicted to it. Universities and cultural institutions quail before it, as do publishers and large corporations. It is the engine of cancel culture as the author Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie argued in her BBC Reith lecture this week. “Literature is in peril” she said “because of social censure”.
The former Democrat presidential contender Elizabeth Warren says that no one man should be in control of such an important platform as Twitter, and she is right. Though curiously the Democrats weren't this bothered when Jack Dorsey was banning Donald Trump.
We are living in a dystopia no science fiction writer could have foreseen. A platform capable of censoring the President of the United States is now a plaything of vain and capricious capitalists. And freedom of speech is whatever Elon Musk says it is.
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