These are strange days in the Twitterverse — where the company’s management or employees and the service’s global community all dwell in seemingly uncomfortable anticipation — as the world’s richest man has taken all the steps necessary to become its overlord. Everyone is waiting to see — provided that the acquisition goes through and the mercurial Elon Musk does not decide to just drop everything and find another toy to play with, of course — just what kind of changes lie ahead for everyone involved. At the same time, though, the whole situation has once again brought into sharp focus the matter of free speech online, since Musk routinely pictures (and sells) himself as being its champion.
He is not. And it is not just naive, but extremely dangerous to think so.
Non-moderated “free speech” online is just asking for trouble
Elon Musk’s view of “free speech” — allowing for everyone to post practically anything, what he himself and others call “zero moderation” — seems to be influenced by what was happening during the early days of the Web, as far back as the beginning of the ’90s. At a time when the medium was still very young (thus… innocent?) and all of us really did feel that we could post anything about anything. The most possible harm one could do was agitate a few bored posters in a forum or write a badly-formatted rant on a rainbow-colored Geocities page that only a handful of people would actually read.
Even back then one would seldom come across a few voices expressing racism or fascism, for instance. But those were summarily dismissed and marginalized easily enough because the number of people who had no agenda and just wanted to communicate and discuss topics of their interest was higher. Overwhelmingly higher.
The Web of today is a totally different beast. Not only can absolutely anything written online be amplified and go viral worldwide in a matter of minutes, but the whole process is practically unstoppable and irreversible. No social network, algorithmically moderated or otherwise, can check everything that gets posted every second — and even if harmful stuff is deleted, it’s not done quickly enough so as to not be stored and reproduced first by anyone. Even strict moderation on social networks such as Twitter or Facebook or Reddit often proves to be ineffective, as numerous examples have proved so far. To allow for no moderation is practically asking for trouble, plain and simple.
Taking things one step further, though, it’s been abundantly clear for years now that “free speech” — as in social sharing under lax or no moderation — is something that racists, fascists, nazis and others systematically abuse in order to drown out all other voices who have no agenda and just do not have it in them to behave that way online. We’ve all seen this, time and time again, on every forum and social network. It’s just the way these people routinely act: like paramilitary groups with a specific purpose in mind. Anyone can take a perfectly civilized public conversation about anything and if a couple of these people start posting… they are guaranteed to just screw it up for everyone else in short order.
It took Twitter a very long time to root out most of the organized, coordinated racist, alt-right, far-right and plain old nazi accounts that run rampant on the platform (on an already toxic enough social network…) spreading misinformation and hate. What Musk seems to want is to just let all of those people in again in the name of “free speech”, still not getting that what they really want is not freedom of expression but chaos.
It was “free speech” of that sort, for instance, what led to the United States Capitol attack in January 2021 — and if that is not a problem for some, then we all know where they probably stand. It’s no coincidence that Donald Trump supporters, far-right supporters and alt-right supporters are all having a blast with Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. They believe or (worse) know that this is good news for them. That is all anyone needs to know about this version of “free speech”.
Social sharing with no moderation — what Musk thinks of as “free speech” — clearly favors those who disrespect it the most. If all sides were able to moderate themselves — as the calmer, more reasonable voices seem to be doing — then this would be a different discussion. But “free speech for all” while certain sides are all too ready to abuse it, is — in practice — no free speech at all. It’s just a screaming contest that wackos will always win. Nothing more.
A biased billionaire clearly not the man for the job
After getting a lot of negative feedback on his “free speech for all, zero moderation, no exceptions” position, Elon Musk claimed that by “free speech” he means “that which matches the law”. This is proof of a different kind that the controversial billionaire is not suitable for shaping the policies of a social network as influential as Twitter: as many people were rightly quick to point out to Musk, “the law” is not a standard or universally definite thing. It varies from country to country, it is modified according to the needs and beliefs of different societies, it is applied in different ways.
Trying to shoehorn Twitter into a mode of operation based on what “the law” states — which is what governments decide, not what private companies are obliged to follow — is as an impossibly complicated a task as it is a pointless one. Let alone the fact that “the law” is, under most circumstances, awfully outdated and incapable to keep up with what’s happening in the fast-moving world of social media. Recent proof of that: “the law” should have theoretically prevented Twitter or Facebook from being used to incite and coordinate the aforementioned United States Capitol attack. Yet not only did that not happen but here we are, more than a year after the incident, with “the law” still unable to deliver justice and take social networks to task.
As to how capable Elon Musk is of understanding how the world of politics as a whole has changed during the last two decades or so — and in what ways that change affects every Western society — here is a tweet that says it all:
Imagine a person being either (a) so ignorant as to not comprehend that — during the same timeframe — the “conservative” side of that line has also extended way, way to the right, where neoliberalism, fascism and nazism lie, or (b) so biased as to knowingly and conveniently disregard that fact. Now imagine that person shaping the moderation policies of Twitter. In Elon Musk’s eyes the US, Europe, the world at large are now more ideologically divided than ever and… it’s the progressives’ fault. Right.
Regardless of political leanings, free speech is and always has been a difficult, complicated topic for discussion at the best of times, online or offline. This hasn’t changed with the advent and rise of Twitter, Facebook or any other social platform. To see things regarding this issue, though, in black and white (as the “total libertarian” Elon Musk seems to be doing) or in a way that’s clearly naive, misinformed and biased (like the “just follow what the law says” or “blame leftists for everything” angles Elon Musk seems to be playing) is not just ineffective or counterproductive. It is dangerous.
Ultimately, that’s why this man is unsuitable for shaping the moderation policies of the most influential social platform in the world: no matter what his personal beliefs or business interests are, his comprehension of the issues at hand is limited and his view tainted. And that’s why, whether you are a Twitter user or not, Elon Musk is definitely not your friend.