Bittertweet Symphony

One of my first mantras when I started this blog was I hate Twitter, but that was shorthand for the broader view that social media is a trainwreck. Of course, the existential difficulty presented by these platforms is that while they can be highly toxic, as long as the market remains, one must have a presence if one has a business or anything else to promote. Leaving Twitter or the Meta or Google properties is not an option unless they dwindle to ghost towns. And people keep predicting Twitter is about to do just that, but is it?

Unlike the typically reclusive tech bosses, Elon Musk is all over Twitter all day long. It’s hard to miss his tweets, many of which proclaim to be defending the speech right, including on behalf of the former president, who attempted to overthrow the constitutional order of the Republic. Whether Musk even contemplates that paradox is unknown just as it is unclear whether he believes his own bullshit about the speech right or simply thinks the rhetoric will be good for business. When he complains that an advertiser exercising its speech right is anti-speech, is he really that obtuse, or is he using “speech” as a lever, hoping the market will pressure the advertiser to re-invest in Twitter?

On the other hand, if Zeeshan Aleem writing for MSNBC is correct, Musk is actively willing to lose one market in favor of another. On the subject of reinstating Trump’s account following a poll conducted by Twitter, Aleem writes, “In his presentation of his faux referendum as a win for ‘the people,’ Musk appears to be trying on right-wing populism for size. And it’s only the latest sign that he views Twitter as a platform for advancing his political agenda as he develops increasingly pronounced far-right views.”

If Musk is a right-wing populist in the mode of Trump, then his free speech rhetoric is on target—courting a base that has swapped all comprehension of American civics for a politics of fear, victimhood, and conspiracy mongering. It takes a practiced ignorance to kowtow to a putative authoritarian while arguing that he deserves a platform under the principles of the First Amendment; and I would say that one must be Trump-drunk to so thoroughly misunderstand the speech right, except that isn’t true, is it?

Elon Musk’s stewardship of Twitter is the logical extension of tech-utopianism just as Trump was a natural biproduct of it—because the erroneous defense that everything is free speech fosters that populist fallacy which alleges there are always two or more sides to every story. Not always. Not every story. For instance, Twitter will no longer enforce its COVID misinformation policy. So, when the market or a news editor or a platform rejects or ignores speech that is objectively false, grotesquely insane, or merely offensive, the speaker naturally colors himself a victim of censorship or “cancel culture.”

But as the new CEO of Twitter, Musk appears as a golem made from the dust and mud slung by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google, Facebook, Fight for the Future, PublicKnowledge, Techdirt, Reddit, Wikimedia Foundation, and every other organization or Big Tech business who preached the gospel that every tittle and jot posted online is fundamentally speech worthy of protection. Yes, Musk is a particular kind of asshole, but the speech nonsense he coughs up today is indistinguishable from anything the tech-utopian/Silicon Valley crowd have been spewing for twenty years.

From the anti-SOPA campaign to the TPP to the incoherent battle over net neutrality to SESTA/FOSTA to the bananas narrative about Section 230 during the Trump administration, the underlying false premise has been the same—that because social platforms are clearly forums for speech, we cannot distinguish, let alone moderate, speech that is harmful or even illegal in this brave new world. But even though that view waned significantly—and deservedly—after 2016, Musk thinks he’s being clever here:

In 2022, that headline is not remotely controversial. The evidence is in and overwhelming. By first allowing every syllable or image to flow freely and then treating it all as protected speech, internet platforms fueled mobs that bullied speakers—very often women with something to say—into silence. Cyber civil rights experts Danielle Citron and Hany Farid wrote earlier this month in Slate:

In 2009, Twitter banned only spam, impersonation, and copyright violations. Then, the lone safety employee, Del Harvey, recruited one of us (Citron) to write a memo about threats, cyberstalking, and harms suffered by people under assault. Harvey wanted to tackle those harms, but the C-suite resisted in the name of being the ‘free speech wing of the free speech party.’

It took many years and multiple shocks to the political system before certain individuals in Big Tech finally admitted that they had helped build insidious machines while platform operators with the help of “digital rights” groups swept every sin under the rug of free speech. Many of the individuals who finally spoke out were whistleblowers and defectors from Facebook, but Jack Dorsey actively sought to change Twitter. Again, Citron and Farid write:

[In 2015], Jack Dorsey returned as CEO and made trust and safety a priority. This was especially evident after the 2016 election. In response to the disinformation and hate speech that plagued the platform during the election season, Dorsey and Gadde gathered a small kitchen cabinet … to map a path forward to ensure that the platform would enhance public discourse rather than destroy it.

It is no longer news that Musk fired the trust and safety folks at the company and has allegedly reversed about a decade’s worth of initiatives designed to make Twitter safer and more accountable. And it is clear from his tweets that he is doubling down on an experiment in laissez-faire speech absolutism that has already failed. In fact, he wrote this spit-take inducing tweet just a few days ago:

Is he really that naïve? Just a tech bro Ozymandias presiding over a village about to become a wasteland? Or is he an ideologue weaponizing the rhetoric of democracy to soften the ground for another run at authoritarianism? Or maybe he’s just a guy with typically inconsistent views filtered through a billionaire’s ego? Whatever Musk envisions for Twitter—a return to the free-for-all that Dorsey et al started to clean up, or a competitor to Parler—for sure he does not have to lose the whole market in order to lose the whole business.

Hazmat suit photo by: Harbucks

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