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by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

The one thing I know about Elon Musk is that I have no idea what he will do, regardless of what he says he’ll do. Despite some amazing accomplishments, including being the person most responsible for creating and popularizing electric vehicles and reusable space rockets, he also has a history of making promises about products which either never or very belatedly come true.

So, when it comes to the news about Musk buying Twitter, I’m far from certain he’ll do what he has implied he will when it comes to content moderation. I’m not even 100% sure he’ll complete the purchase of Twitter once regulators and potential lenders fully scrutinize the deal.

Wants free speech 

Musk has said that one of his main reasons for buying Twitter is to bring back free speech which he defined, in a Tweet as “that which matches the law,” adding “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” Of course “law” depends on where you are. What’s legal in one country could be a major crime in another. The U.S. First Amendment, applies to the government, not private companies. There are many things that are legal to say that would never appear in most newspapers or be allowed in private spaces where the owner, not the government, makes the rules.

Although he hasn’t weighed in specifically about Donald Trump, it is widely assumed he would allow the former President to return to Twitter despite his permanent suspension for allegedly violating Twitter’s glorification of violence policy. (UPDATE: On May 10, 2022 Musk said he would reverse Trump’s Twitter ban.

he’ll reverse Donald Trump Twitter ban


he’ll reverse Donald Trump Twitter ban


It’s important to remember that, until the day after the January 6th riot, Trump was freely allowed to use Twitter, even when he violated that rule with other Twitter users. In 2018 a senior Twitter executive admitted to me that they were allowing Trump to remain on the platform despite his rule violation because what the President of the United States had to say was “newsworthy.” Later Twitter started labeling some of Trump’s more dangerous lies and attacks but it wasn’t until after the insurrection that he was deplatformed.

Some conservatives claim that Twitter is banning political speech, but, to this day, Trump’s own family members are among the millions of people on the right who continue to use the service to express their opinions. Trump was not kicked off for his beliefs but because of Twitter’s belief that his further use of the service would result in more bloodshed, which made sense considering what happened on January 6th. Twitter does not have rules about political speech nor does it ban people for expressing their political beliefs. Witness the fact that Trump remained on the platform until there was reasonable concern that his speech had already led to violence and would likely continue to do so.

Why Twitter created new rules

The rules that led to the suspension of Trump and other users weren’t always there. Early on, a Twitter executive explained their policy to me as “we don’t censor. Period.” When the company launched, Twitter had very few rules. It was always against to rules to “post direct, specific threats of violence against others,” but only if it was a direct threat. Even what is generally considered to be “hate speech,” harassment or cyberbullying weren’t banned in Twitter’s early days.

Over time, Twitter started cracking down on abusive behavior that was having real world consequences. I know because, for the past 10 years or so I’ve represented ConnectSafely on Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, which advises Twitter on content policy and other safety issues.

Twitter’s rule changes came about not just because of Tweets from politicians like Trump or pundits like Alex Jones, but because of a litany of attacks against private citizens who were harassed on Twitter in ways that sometimes led to threats against them and their families. Even before Twitter formally established its Trust and Safety Council, I was at a meeting at Twitter headquarters where feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian and game developer Zoë Quinn described how Twitter trolls made their lives miserable including rape and death threats and threats against family members. Quinn was also “doxed” with personal information being published that increased the risk of physical harm. At the time I was skeptical of demands that Twitter crack down because I was a bit of a free speech purist. My opinions have evolved now that I’ve seen the devasting personal and social consequences of allowing people to engage in vicious attacks or spread lies that lead to dangerous behavior. That’s not to say I approve of every act of suppressing speech. It does bother me that Twitter has gone overboard on occasions.

Hard decisions and competing rights

The decision to ban someone or remove their tweet is a nuanced and difficult one and there is often a balancing act between competing rights such as the right of the speaker versus the right of the target. And just as it’s illegal to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, it’s potentially dangerous to post in ways that could incite violence or lead people to make dangerous decisions. Facebook faces similar challenges which is why it created an independent oversight board to rule on speech issues. Even in matters of law, US courts often disagree on what constitutes protected speech.  The Supreme Court is often divided when it comes to free speech cases.

Twitter has had numerous cases of harassment against well known people like actor Leslie Jones and Robin William’s daughter Zelda Williams but also against people who lead very private lives. Not only do these attacks make people miserable, they also interfere with free speech. How can you have a platform for free speech when you are risking harassment and possibly even rape and murder if you use the platform to speak out? Many of these trolling victims are women and/or people of color, some are teenagers and many are people who you have never heard of. What about their right to safely use Twitter?

Saying horrible things about people is usually not against U.S. law. Even hate speech is generally legal in the US, but certain types of hate speech are a crime elsewhere, especially in Europe, which has a history of antisemitic and other hate speech contributing to the holocaust. But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. Ask yourself what you would do if someone came to your home or business, spewing a racist and antisemitic rant. Would you let them stay if you felt they might be a threat to your children?

Twitter isn’t as private as your home, but it is a private company. It can be argued that it’s grown into the equivalent of a public square but there are many differences between a soap box on a street corner where you might reach a few dozen people and a social media site that reaches hundreds of millions of people, including strangers who might — as in the case of Pizzagate — travel across state lines with the intent to harm people based on lies they’ve seen online.

What Musk might do right

Again, I don’t know what Musk might do if he is successful in acquiring Twitter, but there are things he could do to improve the service. Count me in when it comes to his desire to add an “edit button.” I also agree with his desire to open up Twitter’s algorithms to public scrutiny, and I agree it’s worth taking a closer look at Twitter’s rules and enforcement policies to see if they have gone too far in some cases, such as when they temporarily banned the New York Post for publishing a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop.

I’m sure there are ways to improve on how Twitter regulates content. I would welcome a more transparent set of procedures that would assure people’s right to express themselves while reducing the risk of real-world harm or harassment. Musk has also pledged to do something about Twitter bots and spam, which would be welcomed by many.

We’ll see what happens, but whether Musk can or will make Twitter better is the $44 billion question.

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