It is more than a little awkward when a defender of the First Amendment views Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter as a serious threat. Musk is an outspoken champion of free speech, and that’s supposed to be a core value for people like me.
But we saw what happened when Donald Trump turned his Twitter account into a weapon to attack anyone who crossed him. His supporters turned misinformation into a mission to keep Dear Leader in power. They found like-minded individuals who believed in QAnon goop and lies about a stolen election, and it wasn’t long until they stormed the U.S. Capitol.
When authorities called them out, they tried to claim it was protected free speech.
I thought of all that when Musk said he wanted to turn his newest toy, Twitter, into “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
He’s kidding, right?
Instead of a digital town square, Twitter and other social media platforms like Facebook can be more like havens for middle school bullies. The sites have unmatched power to shape opinions and ruin lives through lies, and nothing is too outrageous.
The fear is Musk will have an anything-goes attitude about those debates on matters vital to the future of humanity.
Conservatives have long complained that big tech mutes their voices. I don’t see a lot of evidence of that because Marjorie Taylor Greene and Randy Fine still have Twitter soapboxes.
But, for a moment, let’s give that conservative argument the benefit of the doubt. If a conservative lands in Twitter or Facebook jail for advocating trickle-down economics, that’s bad. But if someone loses their microphone because they threatened violence or tried to destroy another’s reputation, sorry, that crosses a line.
That cuts both ways.
Those on the Left can be just as nasty and threatening. A quick check today showed a 2020 tweet urging violence against Trump was still online. People on the Left can’t react with horror about the Jan. 6 insurrection, but look the other way when the target is someone they don’t like.
It’s not OK to urge violence against police or celebrate when an anti-vaxxer dies of COVID-19.
You get the picture.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson wrote, “Mr. Musk: free speech is wonderful, hate speech is unacceptable. Disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech have NO PLACE on Twitter. Do not allow 45 to return to the platform. Do not allow Twitter to become a petri dish for hate speech or falsehoods that subvert our democracy.”
Musk promised to police hate speech and harassment, but he’s a little evasive about what qualifies.
“If in doubt, let the speech … let it exist. If it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist,” Musk said. “I do think that we want to be just very reluctant to delete things.”
In other words, one person’s hate speech to one person might be another’s spirited debate. That’s exactly what concerns critics of this deal.
Musk may have good intentions, but no one has figured out how to keep it classy and safe when users go rogue in the digital town square.
It’s not clear how seriously Musk’s Twitter will try to do that, or if it will even try at all.