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Let’s take Musk at his word on Twitter

Maverick billionaire Elon Musk has shaken up the status quo with his acquisition of Twitter, but why has he done it?

Given Musk’s trickster public persona it was easy to dismiss this whole thing as a grand trolling exercise right up until the moment Twitter published a press release confirming the acquisition. That marked a remarkable U-turn after the Twitter board had indicated its trenchant opposition to the move, apparently against the interests of those shareholders happy to cash-in the premium Musk was offering. Perhaps the imminent Q1 earnings announcement focused their minds.

So, what now? The above tweet from Musk featured his canned quote from the press release. Unlike many commentators who have claimed to know what is going on in his exceptional brain, we prefer to simply examine his public statements. There are several indications of Musk’s plans for his new toy, so let’s examine them in order.

Free speech

This fundamental concept is often misunderstood and even its dictionary definition seems to vary considerably. For us it’s self-explanatory and simply expresses the concept of people being able to say what they want. Having said that, even free speech absolutists have to recognise the need for there to be some constraints, with the example of ‘shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre’ often used to illustrate how certain types of speech can result in physical harm.

Like every other form of human activity, speech is constrained by law, and if this exemplary shouter is found to have done so maliciously, they are liable to be prosecuted. But even this example is subject to considerable nuance since, if said theatre really was on fire, the same person would surely be lauded as a hero instead.

The concept of harm is one of the most popular tools of would-be censors, but the burden of evidence is currently far too low. Among many the instinct seems to be to censor first and ask questions later but free speech demands the opposite – that speech should be unfettered until it can be conclusively proven to be illegal through proper due process. Hopefully Musk understands this principle and will reintroduce it to Twitter.

As many people are observing, a Twitter censored according to Musk’s own whims would not necessarily represent an improvement on the current situation, so he needs to be disciplined, transparent and principled in his content moderation policies. The simplest approach would be to simply allow all legal speech, which puts the burden of responsibility onto law-makers and leads us neatly onto the next matter at hand.

The digital town square

Historically the town square was one of the main venues for public discussion, which itself is only possible in a meaningful sense of the word if the principles of free speech are adhered to. Discussion is the only free and democratic way to arrive at consensus – i.e. who decides? In the absence of a town square public decisions, such as new laws, are made behind closed doors without consulting the vast majority of the people they affect. That is tyranny.

Thanks to technology we are now able to extend the concept of the town square globally. While operating at that kind of scale rarely yields applicable consensus by itself, it certainly plays a major part in public debate. Politics, specifically, seems to be increasingly dictated by social media, especially when you consider how suggestible many people are.

Few people dispute the assertion that the primary manifestation of the digital public square is Twitter. Facebook has become so obsolete even its owner has distanced itself from the brand, while the likes of Instagram and TikTok seem to be the destination for more frivolous activities. Twitter is indeed where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated and its current levels of censorship mean it is serving that function poorly. Let’s hope Musk can change that.

One of the first things he will be called upon to rectify is Twitter’s capricious banning policy. Many important contributors to the public debate have been permanently kicked off the platform for what often seem to be arbitrary reasons, without any apparent right of appeal. The most famous of these is former US President Donald Trump who, for his own reasons, might be hesitant to re-join if unbanned. But he, along with many other important banned commentators, should be given an unconditional reprieve.

New features

Which new features would improve Twitter? For many individual users the ability to edit their tweets after publication would appear to be one of the most desired but even that is not without its complications. So long as other tools such as the ability to like and retweet are in place, what are the implications for allowing statements to be changed after people have already engaged with them?

The most interesting and significant new features will affect how people interact with each other on the platform. Human nature being what it is, we tend to default to tribal, fractious behaviour unless incentivised to do otherwise. Don’t just take our word for it, prominent social scientists like Jonathan Haidt place much of the blame for the ultra-polarised nature of public discourse squarely at the feet of social media.

To address this Musk will need to get deep into game theory and conduct public experiments with new tools to see what effects they have on behaviour. What happens if you remove the like button, for example? How do we even go about measuring the quality of discourse? And what about the incentives built into Twitter’s current ad-funded business model – is it even possible to significantly innovate while they’re in place?

Increasing trust

Right now many who use Twitter are walking on eggshells for fear of getting kicked off (or shadow banned). There’s also the matter of trolls, bots and bad actors in general. The stream of conversation seems to be littered with obstacles and traps, making the simple act of tweeting a fraught one. For Twitter to achieve its full potential as the digital public square, Musk will need to finely balance the principle of free speech with the need to make it a place people want to be.

Greater transparency is usually a great way to increase trust and making the platform’s underlying algorithms available to be scrutinised and criticised would be a massive step in the right direction. Similarly the verification process seems to be completely haphazard right now, when surely it should merely be a tool to distinguish real people from bots. Some kind of broader digital identity project would help with this but that comes with all manner of dystopian downsides too.

One of the main reasons social media has evolved into such a hostile place for many of its users, it would seem, is the incentives baked into the ad-funded model. These not only incline platforms to censor speech that might upset advertisers, they also create the need to constantly chase traffic. This, in turn, results in algorithms that seek to make the most ‘viral’ content more prominent, much of which involves the worst kinds of human interactions. Would a subscription model resolve this?

Perhaps the best place to leave it is with the person who invented Twitter and is apparently dissatisfied with the direction it has taken since it went public and was thus at the mercy of investors, who aren’t necessarily preoccupied with the public good. Jack Dorsey seems happy with this development and it will be interesting to see how involved Musk makes him when the deals completes. That’s assuming the majority of shareholders approve it, of course.,

 

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2 comments

  1. Avatar Julius Chambers 27/04/2022 @ 10:16 pm

    Well-reasoned but to quibble here and there, can you really call the Twitter board’s self-serving initial moves as ‘trenchant’? Saying what you want is at a premium these days, and shouldn’t be.

    You speak of necessary constraints, almost giving the game away (Seemingly unbothered by the status quo? Unperturbed by BLM calls for violence?), when the default should be “why not?”, not “why?” –do we have a right to choose our own ‘experts’ outside of the credentialed class– same as it always has been, until this era.

    Yes, a Truth and Reconciliation process within Twitter would not be amiss, a purging of those responsible for consistently mendacious and venal attempts (and above all one-sided!) to place a heavy thumb on public discourse. Time to ‘name names’, starting with social media, then onwards through the public health establishment…

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 28/04/2022 @ 9:11 am

      I don’t think Musk should be vengeful towards the incumbent censorship team. Instead he should give clear new guidelines and make it clear that those unwilling to follow them should resign.

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