Consider the 2020 presidential election. Platforms such as Twitter quickly and aggressively censored any mention of the explosive New York Post story on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, which seemed to implicate President Joe Biden in suspicious business dealings in countries such as Ukraine and China, in addition to generally embarrassing stories of familial dysfunction that are normally media catnip during an election season.
Public polling suggests that many Biden voters might have switched their votes had they known about the Hunter Biden laptop story. By censoring access to politically relevant information, platforms like Twitter have immense power in the public square.
Stakeholders in social media platforms know this, which explains why so many have greeted Musk’s bid to reform Twitter with hostility.
Washington Post columnist Max Boot wrote that “for democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.” It is a curious thing to say that democracy requires censorship to survive, but this is the position of many who support the establishment.
Robert Reich, the labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, wrote that Musk’s vision for an open and free internet is “dangerous” because it would allow former President Donald Trump to tweet. Somehow, allowing an “uncontrolled internet” (his words) is just what the dictators want.
What’s dangerous is the idea that only people who agree with the establishment should be allowed to talk online. America was built on the principles of free speech, and it would be fantastic if more of our platforms would reflect this.
Let’s wish Musk good luck. He will need it.
Supporters of Big Tech platforms tell critics that “if they don’t like it, they can build their own.” But when people do build competitors — as with Parler, Gab, and now Trump’s Truth Social — they often find themselves deplatformed by upstream providers, payment processors, or app stores.
Well, Musk just bought his own. This is a market mechanism, too. Will a Musk-owned, free speech-friendly Twitter face similar deplatforming, though? It seems likely.
Then, there is the question of employee sabotage. Twitter employees may balk at the new ownership, preferring the old censorious standard. Employees at other tech companies have sabotaged contracts with the Department of Defense because of their political sympathies. Perhaps a similar dynamic will occur here.
Or maybe Musk won’t end up being the free speech champion that supporters have hoped. The new owner has tweeted that he intends to “defeat spam bots” — a welcome goal no matter your politics. But the caveat is that this includes “authentcat[ing] all real humans.” This could mean an end to anonymous accounts not linked to real identities — and to real jobs from which people can be fired.
The fact that Twitter outcomes depend so heavily on Twitter administration is what pushed former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to turn the platform into a decentralized one that no one party can control. The Blue Sky project would convert Twitter into an open protocol, like email, atop which anyone could build. That means competition in “moderation,” aka less censorship.
Of course, Dorsey decamped to build on Bitcoin before he could see Blue Sky built out to completion. But if forces at Twitter would prevent Musk from making the platform more free speech-friendly, would they allow Blue Sky to do the same?
If nothing else, Musk’s tumultuous bid to make Twitter more open to free speech shows just how many are opposed to the concept in principle. When people tell you what they believe, we should believe them.