Twitter, free speech, and the gates of hell

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has prompted a range of extreme, borderline hysterical reactions.  According to progressives, the gates of hell have been opened and people are going to die because Mr. Musk believes free speech is important on social media platforms and someone might encounter an objectionable tweet as a result.  What are they so afraid of and why?

Progressives have settled on a phrase to describe Elon Musk’s tenure at Twitter so far.  In their view, the world’s richest man has “opened the gates of hell” and people will die, literally, as a result of his desire for a more free speech oriented platform.  So says The Washington Post’s tech reporter, Taylor Lorenz, who quoted Alejandro Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard’s Cyberlaw Clinic.  “What Musk is doing is existentially dangerous for various marginalized communities. It’s like opening the gates of hell in terms of the havoc it will cause. People who engaged in direct targeted harassment can come back and engage in doxing, targeted harassment, vicious bullying, calls for violence, celebration of violence. I can’t even begin to state how dangerous this will be.”  The same expert and the same phrase were used by Axios and NBC News.  CNN, meanwhile, is reporting that “Death is in the air at Twitter” while lamenting the potential fate of “Black Twitter.”  “Black Twitter is mourning the possible end of the influential community,” as they put it, though Mr. Musk has done precisely nothing to reduce the influence of minority voices on the platform.  David Leavitt, an award winning multimedia journalist who has produced content for CBS, Yahoo, and more asked, “How many people are going to die because of this?” in response to Mr. Musk’s decision to reinstate the account of former President Donald Trump.  The “award” winning journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, warned Mr. Musk, “You will have blood on your hands” over the same.  Nesrin Malick writing for The Guardian claimed the return of Trump and Kanye West “looks likely to turn the social media site into an extremist ghetto.”  This hyperventilation is occurring less than a month after some of the very same people claimed Twitter as a platform was on its last legs and would not survive more than a single week given the rapid reduction in staff since Mr. Musk took the helm.  Rarely, does one see such a dizzying array of hyperbolic opinions spun so fast and furiously over what amounts to a fancy text message app.

Precisely, what are they afraid of?  To be sure, Mr. Musk himself has been adamant that Twitter will continue to enforce the law and prevent harassment.  Last week, he commented specifically on Ms. Caraballo’s claim, saying “This alleged expert is saying things that are flat out false.  I have now said several times of Twitter that incitement to violence, obviously including threats of physical harm, will result in account suspension.”  This is far from the only statement he’s made to this effect, even explaining how he plans to tweak Twitter’s algorithms for more controversial content that is neither violent nor threatening, merely objectionable.  Rather than ban the content question, Mr. Musk plans to greatly limit its reach by suppressing it from feeds.  One can debate the relative strengths and weaknesses of his proposals and leadership in general, but obviously he is sensitive to the idea that harmful speech is not acceptable on the platform and making plans to address the issue.  We know this because he recently suspended a number of progressive accounts for exactly that.  Chaya Raichick, the founder of Libs of TikTok has been a target for angry progressives target after Ms. Lorenz doxed her earlier this year, purposely violating many of the protocols progressives demand for others.  “Someone should fire bomb her house honestly,” proclaimed a user with the handle “ACAB.”  Another, “marge simpson roblox” said “someone please kill chaya raichik that is all” and “i think her family should be killed.”  Bris Angel was a bit more poetic, “I hope that libsoftiktok freak feels a profound and true sense of danger soon.  The kind you only feel when your mind floods with primitive fear and adrenaline.” El said “fight fire with fire and gun down chaya raichik maybe.  Some people don’t deserve lives.”  Wolf-Mom at the End of the World insisted “the only answer is to shoot chaya raichik.”  Mr. Raichik’s crime?  She posts the unedited statements of progressives in a montage format.  She highlights their own words, and for that she deserves death.  Under Mr. Musk, all of these accounts and others that have issued similar threats have been deleted.  In other words, there is every indication, despite progressive claims to the contrary, that Mr. Musk is serious about threatening language and other egregious breaches of decorum.  One might say Mr. Musk is actually closing the gates of hell.

Therefore, we should ask again, what are they truly afraid of?  Ms. Malik provides a potential answer in The GuardianIn her view, this whole free speech thing Mr. Musk and others like myself have been championing is simply unworkable as advertised and he shouldn’t even try.  “Free speech absolutists,” you see, “are like the cocky audience of a spectator sport – they think they could do better than the players, if they were just allowed a crack at it. To them, speech should be as free as possible, period.”  She continued to claim that, “abuse and disinformation” on social media “have created a new frontier of regulation – and with it a cohort of disingenuous free speech warriors.”  Before we consider the details of Ms. Malik’s claims, we should question the foundations.  First, fair-minded people should all readily agree that “speech should be as free as possible, period.”  There’s a reason why the right is enshrined in the First Amendment, and wherever possible that should be the goal.  We can also agree that some speech is beyond the bounds of public discourse.  Threats, harassment, etc., most of which are already illegal and not generally controversial.  I don’t know many people who believe you can login to Twitter and threaten to kill people, any more so than you could do at a local bar.  Therefore, any new “frontier of regulation” needs to balance people’s ability to speak their minds with the potential for illegal or otherwise threatening speech.  The idea that this is impossible to do or filled with potential danger even unto death should strike fair minded people as absurd.  In this regard, I fully believe that I can “do better” than the current players.  I know this because their track record is atrocious.  Rather than address truly hateful or illegal speech that almost everyone agrees has no place in public discourse, they have pushed the “frontier of regulation” into politically protected speech.  We can understand why Twitter should not allow Wolf-Mom at the End of the World to promote violence against Ms. Raichik, or or why Ms. Lorenz should not dox people (though I don’t see them calling for her removal from the platform or her cushy perch at the Post), but that is far from all the social media content moderators have been suppressing.

Instead, they’ve been policing so-called misinformation, blocking even reputable media accounts from promoting their content.  The suppression of The New York Posts’ Hunter Biden laptop story on the false grounds that it was hacked is the most egregious example, but the pandemic saw countless others.  This is the kind of speech that needs to be protected at all costs, and clearly what Mr. Musk is referring to when he says he wants to make Twitter the digital town square. These are also the sorts of issues that are studiously avoided by Ms. Malik.  Instead, she prefers to distract from the issue with a series of (somewhat) personal attacks on those who disagree and strawman arguments.  The absolutists for free speech are “so unaccustomed to facing consequences for their actions that they have pushed the idea that a censoring ‘woke’ orthodoxy now prevails.”  Mr. Musk has become “the tribune of fascists and racists by way of adolescent contrarianism, an insatiable need to flaunt his control and a radicalising inability to cope with being told he’s wrong on the internet.”  He is quickly learning “that free speech is not simply about saying whatever you want, unchecked, but about negotiating complicated compromises.”  Twitter itself is “about to turn into a far more unpleasant and potentially dangerous experience.”  For Twitter to be useful, “robust content moderation is necessary to ensure conversations don’t descend into doxing (maliciously publishing someone’s personal information) and hateful conduct, and that news and journalism is verifiable. In the absence of moderation, or at least the appearance of it, things fall apart pretty quickly.”  Ms. Malik fails to explain how she gets from abusive discourse and behavior such as doxing and hateful conduct which are reasonably objective to determine and easy to spot to “news and journalism” being verifiable in a single statement.  The three are not the same.  Indeed they aren’t remotely related.  How is a social media platform supposed to verify news when the newspapers and journalists themselves frequently get it wrong?  Consider the stories surrounding the unprecedented raid on former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.  Over a few short days, supposedly reputable media outlets informed us that Attorney General Merrick Garland did not approve the search warrant.  He did.  They then told us that the former President was hoarding nuclear secrets for profit.  A couple of weeks ago, however, the withholdings were for memorabilia purposes.  This is one single, rather simple story over the past few months.  How can anyone reasonably believe any content moderation policy can objectively verify these reports?  One might also question why the existing content moderation regimes have not blocked the offender’s accounts.  Why is The Washington Post, for example, able to distribute unverified stories on social media while The New York Post cannot?

Both questions deserve reasoned, well thought answers, but Ms. Malik isn’t going to provide one, nor are any of Mr. Musk’s progressive detractors.  Indeed, one would be reasonable to think they do not want answers to these questions because they know very well how these moderation strategies operate in favor of progressive causes.  Mr. Musk has promised to make the internal deliberations at Twitter concerning the Hunter Biden laptop public.  This is essential to exposing what the purpose of these moderation regimes truly was and whether or not they were applied fairly.  The world needs to know whether the goal was to suppress a negative story in the middle of an election (my belief) or if it was an honest mistake (not likely).  Any one concerned about the spread of misinformation needs to address what happens when the moderators get it wrong.  How was it that the country’s oldest newspaper was blocked from distributing an accurate story while The Washington Post can claim Trump is selling nuclear secrets with impunity?  If you truly believe misinformation is a problem, this unequal treatment should be top of mind at all times as misinformation can and does originate from everywhere.  The truth, despite the dodges of Ms. Malik and others, is that social media has been on a misinformation crusade suppressing any opinion they do not like, sometimes in collaboration with the federal government.  It’s one thing to block a teenager bullying a fellow classmate.  It’s quite another to block the actual news or the opinions of medical professionals that disagree with the establishment.  Rather than engaging with that obvious challenge that Mr. Musk is committed to solving, Ms. Malik would rather end with another strawman, claiming that believers in free speech object to a set of “curbs…that make users’ experience of social media, and life in general, possible; they protect against, among other jeopardies, libel, impersonation, plagiarism, misinformation and grooming. In essence, all our free speech arguments are about finessing, rather than obliterating a system of functional restrictions.”  One wonders if Ms. Malik is even aware of the logical outcome of her own arguments.  If these “curbs” truly exist, then why is she and others of her political persuasion busy making ridiculously exaggerated claims about the “gates of hell,” people dying because of exposure to objectionable speech, and a new online ghetto?  None of these things are factually correct or can be verified in any meaningful way.  They are instead libel, misinformation, and outright propaganda.  The very things they rail against on full display. Why is that?

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