When I first became aware of Twitter, back in 2007 or so, I thought it was a complete waste of time. A website whose purpose, as it was originally explained, was for users to record exactly what they were doing at any given moment? What in God’s name was the point?
Well, now it’s 2022 and with the benefit of hindsight I can see how wrong I was: Twitter is much, much more of a waste of time than I ever imagined. Who could have guessed, way back then, that one day vast numbers of people would spend endless hours online yelling at people they had never met about things they knew nothing about? Whatever did we do before – however did we get through the day – without the ability at any time, wherever we might happen to be, to have hundreds of people tell us what an awful person we are?
And yet, viewed in strictly numerical terms, Twitter would seem a relatively marginal force. Its user base is a small fraction of that of other social media sites like Facebook or Instagram, and vastly unrepresentative of the population at large. Much of its capacity for harm would be reduced if its victims stayed off the site. No one has to be on Twitter, and most of the people who are actually contributing to society aren’t.
Alas, Twitter’s impact often extends beyond the limits of its own universe, especially as it contributes to the spread of lunacy and disinformation among the population at large. So it becomes a matter of some interest who owns it, and how they propose to run it.
Enter Elon Musk. Much of the hysteria surrounding his takeover bid seems overblown. The site is such a mess as it is that it is hard to see how he could make it much worse; some of his proposals, such as opening its algorithms to public scrutiny and weeding out the bots, even have the potential to improve it.
What gives people pause, nevertheless, are his stated views on the question of what sort of moderation, if any, to impose on its often vile content. A self-professed “free speech absolutist,” Mr. Musk has referred to Twitter, grandiosely, as “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” Accordingly, he has seemed to suggest that the only guide to what is prohibited on Twitter should be what is prohibited by law.
But of course Twitter is not the digital town square, nor is social media generally. It is a part of it, but it is not the whole of it, or even close. As a private company, short of a monopoly, its position cannot be likened to that of the state; neither, therefore, is it subject to the sort of strict limits on its capacity to regulate speech that properly constrain the state.
But if its position is not like the state, neither is it like that of the telephone company, as social media companies used to argue: the conversations that take place on it are not, for the most part, private, the sort of thing we should wish neither governments nor corporations to intrude upon. It is more in the nature of a publisher, and like any other publisher, it should be held to account for what appears under its name.
Held to account … by whom? Not, if we are wise, the state, beyond those laws that are already on the books. Rather, it is a judgment best left to the site’s owners, staff, users and advertisers. Competition is the best check against excesses; the sites that do not get the balance right when it comes to content moderation will presumably suffer relative to those that do.
How should we judge that balance? When a publisher decides not to publish something we do not, as a rule, accuse it of censorship. We say it is exercising editorial judgment. At the same time, even private actors have an obligation to act in the “spirit” of free speech: the laws that protect it, after all, are the product of a larger cultural agreement that speech is important, and ought to be as free as possible. When that erodes, so, in time, will the legal protections.
Mr. Musk is right, then, to want to err on the side of free speech. He just needn’t err all the way. Still, editing the contributions of millions of users all over the world, on any number of subjects, in every language, and all in real time, poses difficulties of a kind no publisher has had to face before. Rockets, electric cars, colonizing Mars: these were all ambitious projects. But fixing Twitter – now there’s a challenge worthy of his ego.
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