Elon Musk wants Twitter to be a public place free of expression

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Elon Musk’s vision for Twitter is a public place where there are few restrictions on what people can or cannot say on the internet.

But the utopian ideal envisioned by the Tesla CEO ceased to exist long ago and ignores what’s happening in the real world, say tech executives, Twitter employees and insiders at Silicon Valley. As Musk seeks a hostile $43 billion takeover bid for Twitter, critics say his ambition for what the platform should be – a largely unguarded, censorship-free space – is naive, would hurt to the company’s growth prospects and would make the platform unsafe.

Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have spent billions of dollars and employed armies of people to create and enforce policies to reduce hate speech, misinformation and other toxic communications that degrade public discourse. In doing so, they have angered not only right-wing politicians, who say these actions constitute censorship, but also people on the left, who say enforcement by tech companies is both too limited and biased. .

“What Musk apparently fails to recognize is that to truly have freedom of speech today, you need moderation,” said Katie Harbath, former director of public policy at Facebook and CEO of the firm. advice Anchor Change. “Otherwise, only those who bully and harass will stay because they will drive others away.”

She added that content moderation and responsible platform design done well can actually allow for more speech.

Jack Dorsey, former CEO of Twitter, who co-founded the social media company 16 years ago, said in a tweet about Musk’s potential takeover bid: “I don’t think any individual or institution should own social media, or more generally media companies. It should be an open and verifiable protocol. Everything is a step towards that.

Twitter declined to comment. Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Musk, a prolific Twitter user himself with more than 80 million followers, touted the benefits of free speech before his hostility take-over bid unveiled in a Securities and Exchange filing last week. Following the disclosure, he conducted a poll on Twitter asking whether taking the company private at $54.20 per share should be up to shareholders and not the board. Speaking at a TED talk in Vancouver on Thursday, he touted free speech on the internet.

“I think it’s very important that there is an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said during the TED interview. “Twitter has become a kind of de facto public square, so it’s very important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the confines of the law.”

Musk, who previously called himself a free speech maximalist, also said he hoped to make the company’s algorithm publicly available, helping people understand how content appears on the platform. . He also said platforms should police speech in accordance with US laws, a comment that was widely interpreted to mean that he advocated limited moderation of content, as speech in the US without direct calls for violence is widely protected by the First Amendment.

And he said his offer wasn’t to make money.

“My strong intuitive feeling is that it is extremely important for the future of civilization to have a public platform of maximum trust and broadly inclusive for the future of civilization,” he said.

Some pro-free speech networks have been discovered by researchers as havens for white supremacists and those wishing to harm society.

Tech executives argue Musk’s ideals were born out of a time when the internet served a different purpose – when concerns about government repression and news outlets as gatekeepers drove early pioneers of social media, including Twitter’s own founders, to believe that free speech was paramount. above all other ideals.

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Early internet pioneers of Musk’s generation, including Dorsey, have long subscribed to the ideal that more speech is the best antidote to harmful or bad speech. CEOs have been shaped by experiences such as the Arab Spring, where ordinary activists used social media services to share their experiences even as governments tried to suppress them.

They came of age at a time when governments could speak through them with a megaphone that could drown out the public far more easily than it can today. The conviction was so strong that a former Google and Twitter executive used to refer to Twitter as “the free speech wing of the free speech party”.

At the same time, the people who built the internet – in an era that many in Silicon Valley call Web 1.0 – have taken hardline rhetoric postures to also fight religious conservatives and opponents of the internet itself, some of whom argued that the internet should be restricted as it would become a haven for “porn and sometimes first-person shooters”, tweeted Yishan Wong, former CEO of internet platform Reddit.

“For [many of the older tech leaders], the internet represented freedom, a new frontier, a flowering of the human spirit, and great optimism that technology could usher in a new golden age for humanity,” said Wong, a Silicon Valley pioneer , in a widely circulated thread. “It’s not that the principle is no longer valid (it is), it’s that the practical problems of maintaining this principle are different, because the world has changed. ”

Wong added that the idea that greater freedom of speech is the best way to counter bad speech is “naive” in today’s world.

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Fast forward and the internet is indeed a different place. Russian trolls seeded disinformation on social platforms during the 2016 US election and President Donald Trump used a network of followers as a megaphone for disinformation ahead of the last election. Anti-vaccine activists have used social media to spread health conspiracies to millions. Even now, amid the conflict in Ukraine, researchers and Facebook have identified disinformation networks trying to tilt public opinion towards Russia.

“The internet is not a frontier where people can go to be free, it’s where the whole world is now, and all the culture wars are fought there,” Wong tweeted.

In an interview, Wong said that the early internet pioneers of Musk’s era had “a lived experience of free speech that worked pretty well, and the haters of free speech were totally bad,” and it informed their view of the world.

Twitter’s shift from a largely unmoderated platform to one with more robust content moderation came a year after the 2016 presidential election, when it was revealed that Russian operatives were broadcasting disinformation on social media in an attempt to tip the election outcome towards Trump. Big rivals Facebook and YouTube also took similar moves in response to the 2016 election.

In late 2017, Twitter began building tools and hiring content moderators to weed out misinformation, fake accounts, spam, and other forms of what the company called “inauthentic behavior.” This effort was further heightened in 2018, when the company launched an initiative focused on “healthy conversations” and opinions solicited more than 200 outside experts on how to keep the service free from harassment and bullying. (Before that, user complaints about harassment and bullying were largely ignored by the company, according to numerous reports at the time.)

In 2019, Twitter also developed labels that would cover tweets from powerful people and politicians who broke the service’s rules but whose tweets were considered newsworthy. And in 2020, he crafted new policies to tackle misinformation in the 2020 election and the pandemic.

All of these new measures drastically changed the way speech was controlled on the platform and resulted in the removal of their posts and accounts from many more people.

Today, teams working on healthy conversations on Twitter include dozens of people, some of whom have been among the most concerned about Musk’s potential takeover, according to internal documents obtained by The Post and people familiar with the issues. discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity. to protect their jobs.

Researchers who study social media say Twitter has improved dramatically in some areas, though some rule violations are still easy to spot on the service. The company has become much better at detecting fake accounts and misinformation, for example, and was also the first social network to penalize Trump for violating its policies. (Trump is now banned from Twitter.)

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Tech liability advocates say it would be very risky for Twitter or other social networks to take down some of the steps they’ve taken in recent years.

“A platform that allows people to spam misogynistic and racist abuse is dangerous for almost anyone and would quickly lose advertisers, business partners and sponsors, making it a commercially unviable shell within months,” said Imran Ahmed, founding CEO of the non-profit group. , Center for Countering Digital Hate, which studies and promotes the responsibility of technology companies.

Wong, along with others, pointed out that if Musk took over Twitter, he would be in a “world of pain” because of moderation challenges.

“Given the misunderstandings that exist around free speech on platforms, I sometimes think it’s hard to understand until you’re on the front line having to make these decisions to understand the seriousness and difficulty of the work”, tweeted Esther Crawford, a Twitter executive whose own social network, Squad, was acquired by Twitter. “I am very pro of freedom of expression but there must be limits for the health of a platform and to ensure the safety of people.”

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