With Elon Musk taking over Twitter less than a month ago, the social media platform has become an online attraction site. From Kathy Griffin being temporarily suspended for parodying Musk himself, to trolls proclaiming under Eli Lilly’s name insulin to be free from now on, Twitter has not found its way out of the bumpy ride it has been on ever since the take-over. With Musk’s goal of making Twitter a platform that is governed by free speech principles, it becomes increasingly questionable whether the way that absolute free speech was envisioned is practicable for a social media platform like Twitter. This month’s blog will therefore dive into the question of what free speech means and how it has been adopted in the context of Musk’s Twitter.
Content Moderation: Reinforcing Free Speech or Form of Censorship?
For a while now, many conservative camps claim content moderation to be a tool for censorship, and thus, call for its abolition. However, it is crucial that these terms are properly differentiated if the aim is to have a constructive discourse on the right to free speech. What is important to keep in mind is that free speech is not an absolute right and is thus subject to limitations. For example, under the European Convention on Human Rights, which is binding for all states that have ratified it, restrictions include inter alia the protection of health and morals, national security, or the protection of the reputation and rights of others. Consequently, the notion of absolute free speech goes against international human rights standards and is therefore in itself problematic.
Keeping the limitations of free speech in mind, it becomes more apparent what the role of content moderation on social media platforms is: Instead of censoring internet users, it is meant to endorse free speech of everyone on the internet by moderating speech which serves no significant public interest and may restrain others in their right to free speech. In other words, “content moderation is not synonymous with censorship.”
This is not to say that content moderation should not be questioned. There are instances where content is being censored under the guise of content moderation. UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, emphasizes problematic aspects of content moderation such as over-blocking or over-removal which describes the tendency of social media platforms to remove content that does not meet the threshold to fall under any limitations of free speech. In many cases, this is due to governmental pressures exercised on social media platforms to remove certain content. Another aspect that is important to highlight is the fact that content-removal frameworks are often neither cohesive nor transparent which leaves those in charge with considerable discretion.
Twitter’s New Approach to Free Speech
Early in November, Musk proudly proclaimed on Twitter that his “goal is to make Twitter the most accurate source of information on Earth, without regard to political affiliation.” Although this may sound like a noble goal to pursue, the consequences of it are detrimental. Disinformation specialist Nina Jankowicz underlines how free speech absolutism leads to the silencing of marginalized groups and minorities. She further emphasizes that such silencing effects are not primarily caused by obvious illegal or violent speech, which would also be prohibited under Musk’s Twitter, but more by borderline hostile speech. Of course, Twitter is free to follow a path which would align more with free speech absolutism and which would be more analogous to the American First Amendment doctrine enshrined in the US Constitution. The consequence of such a decision would be that discourse on Twitter could become more hostile and perhaps even more polarized. This is because whereas EU Law recognizes hate speech as something that should be prohibited, the first amendment protects such speech as the First Amendment is not meant to protect people from being offended. In other words, Americans have a way more liberal understanding of the notion of free speech compared to Europeans which translates into a higher threshold for prohibiting speech.
Nevertheless, governments are subject to more public scrutiny when it comes to speech which is not the case with regular internet users. As such, online discourse among citizens can have the potential of being more hostile and discriminatory. Moreover, the deregulatory approach considered by Musk and welcomed by journalists such as Jeffrey Rosen will not hold in the context of the EU which upholds stricter standards and conceptualizes free speech more narrowly than in the US. This will be even more relevant once the Digital Services Act will enter into force which holds very large platforms more accountable in regard to illegal content.
With Musk’s aims in mind, it seems almost ironic that only a few days ago, the social media platform introduced its Twitter Blue subscription scheme. While the blue checkmark used to be an indicator of “active, notable, and authentic accounts of public interest that Twitter had independently verified based on certain requirements,” this has changed into a monetization strategy by which virtually anyone can purchase the blue checkmark for $7,99/month. Whether this is a true approach to absolute freedom of speech by offering better features and an artificial form of verification in return for money remains arguable. So far, the new changes have brought nothing but chaos with numerous instances of impersonating famous people and companies. With so much turmoil ensuing on Twitter, Musk’s response was to regulate parody accounts which also seems to be quite contrary to his free speech absolutist approach. Perhaps it’s an implied admission that absolute free speech might not be a viable option after all.
After some tumultuous few weeks, it appears that Musk is slowly retrieving from his previous plans and seems to just re-market Twitter and its checkmarks by introducing new colors (gold for companies and gray for public institutions) and a payment scheme. In one of his recent Twitter posts, he announces that all verified accounts will be manually authenticated. Thus, it is unclear how this truly differs from the previous system.
One potentially positive effect of this whole fiasco is the fact that many internet users who may have felt left out and not properly represented by Twitter due to the suspension of famous alt-right accounts may experience more inclusion. While it is not yet clear who will be able to return to the platform under Musk, this may prevent further waves of deplatforming which means that entire groups can be excluded from social media platforms due to the content they produce. Although inevitable at times, this always bears the risk of users moving to so-called dark platforms, which according to Zeng and Schäfer refer to platforms that are less regulated and can thus become a breeding ground for hostile and unlawful speech. As such, it may be more desirable to maintain mainstream platforms where such internet users can somewhat be held at bay.
Musk’s takeover of Twitter is still in its early days so it is difficult to foresee what the consequences will be for the platform itself as well as its users. What seems to become more apparent is that free speech absolutism is more difficult to practice and not as feasible as previously expected by the new owner. Perhaps this might turn into an important lesson for people to understand that maximizing free speech can also come with detrimental consequences for many users.