Five Steps to Save Free Speech on Twitter: A Musk Roadmap

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According to reports, Elon Musk is now expected to take over as the temporary CEO of Twitter as soon as his financing of the purchase is finalized. It is good news because buying Twitter may prove a mere skirmish in comparison to the coming battle. Political forces in the United States and abroad are already aligning to resist his effort to restore free speech to social media.

If history has shown one thing, it is that it is easier to lose rights than to regain them. Musk has a product in demand but neither governments nor many of his own employees want to be sold. If Musk is to fulfill his pledge, he will need to take five specific steps to secure free speech protections.  Given the interests allied against him, Musk must move quickly if he wants to not only reintroduce but to maintain free speech on Twitter.

1. Adopt the First Amendment standard.

Pundits and politicians, including President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama, have justified their calls for censorship (or “content moderation” for polite company) by stressing that the First Amendment only applies to the government, not private companies. That distinction allows Obama to declare himself last week to be “pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist.” He did not call himself a “free speech absolutist” because he favors censorship for views that he considers to be “lies,” “disinformation,” or “quackery.”

The distinction has always been a disingenuous evasion. The First Amendment is not the sole or exclusive definition of free speech. Censorship on social media is equally, if not more, damaging for free speech. However, Musk can call this bluff. He could order Twitter to apply the First Amendment standard that applies to the government for speech in a public forum. In doing so, Musk would instantly eliminate most of the censorship currently imposed on the site. He would, however, have to stipulate that the standards for “government speech” (which allows for greater speech regulation) would not apply. Twitter will be treated as “the digital town square” that he has long embraced.

 2.    Restructure Twitter.

Once a new standard is set, Musk must establish how it is enforced. That will require breaking down the extensive censorship bureaucracy at Twitter, starting at the top. That move is already likely as evident in the tearful remarks of Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal, policy and trust, to her staff this week. Gadde, like Twitter CEO Parag Agrawalis notorious in the free speech community for her record of censorship, including her role in banning Donald Trump as well as the New York Post story on the Hunter Biden laptop. Taking over as CEO and immediately removing such figures will have a clear impact. However, new measures should also include publishing the algorithms and finally achieving transparency in the decision-making at Twitter over content. This should also include a full accounting of any means used in the past to control online discussions, including throttling or shadow banning.

3.  Shift from site moderation to individual filters.

The adoption of the First Amendment standard is not perfect. This is a private site that can be sued for a variety of postings from copyright and trademark violations to privacy violations to criminal threats. Moreover, many sites bar the use of racist or offensive terms in comments. That is necessary since all readers are exposed to the comment section. Twitter is different. It can adopt a general free speech platform model while allowing individuals to apply specific filters to block racist terms or profane language. Free speech includes the right to readers to choose what they read. The key is that the decision can be left to readers rather than imposed by the company. Just as you can walk away from speakers in the town square, you can choose what you read. You can also choose to read more broadly. Twitter can leave such decisions in the hands of the consumer.

4.  Shift away from ad revenue.

The next campaign is predictable. Liberals will likely target advertisers to boycott Twitter. Advocates have already shown that they can prevail on corporations to yield to such campaigns. Many are concerned that Musk could be proven right that consumers want more freedom despite campaigns by companies like Facebook to get them to embrace censorship. If Twitter grows in size and profits it will only add pressure to companies like Facebook that continue to undermine their own product through censorship. Advocates will likely seek to attack Twitter’s profits to discourage other companies from embracing free speech. Notably, Musk has already expressed a desire to have fewer ads and rely more on subscription revenue. That will not only be aesthetically more pleasing but can insulate the site from the inevitable cancel campaign.

5.  Protect against Surrogate State Censors.

As it became more likely that Musk could buy Twitter, there was a notable shift in the comments of pro-censorship figures. Hillary Clinton, who has long been viewed as hostile to free speech values, went to Twitter to call on the European Union to quickly pass the Digital Services Act in Europe to force censorship “before it’s too late.” That time table appears to be the Musk takeover when the public will suddenly have a free speech alternative to the once solid alliance of censorship among social media companies. Since figures like Clinton cannot count on corporate surrogates to censor, they are returning to good old-fashioned state censorship. If the DSA is passed, they hope to force Twitter to resume censoring material – a warning echoed by EU officials this week. Congress needs to act to blunt such an attack on American companies seeking to restore free speech values.

At the same time, the United Kingdom is pushing its own Online Safety Act and recently Musk was summoned to Parliament to answer for his alarming suggestion of restoring free speech on social media. The British are assuring citizens to “stay calm and censor on” despite Musk’s pledge. It is threatening to take ten percent of the company’s profits if Musk does not censor users.  Musk will have to create firewall or siloed systems for countries forcing censorship. These systems should post tweets with a warning that these users are being subjected to national censorship standards while protecting U.S. users from having their free speech reduced to the lower common denominator.

These challenges are difficult but pale in comparison to reinventing space travel. The greatest asset that Musk brings to Twitter beyond a deep pocket and deep faith in free speech is his legendary creativity. He tends to focus on a horizon rather than the obstacles or opponents before him. Free speech remains a horizonal ideal but one that is attainable for someone with unflagging commitment and creativity. This could be the ultimate “moon shot” for Musk to bring free speech back to the Internet.

95 thoughts on “Five Steps to Save Free Speech on Twitter: A Musk Roadmap”

  1. Since Twitter is the topic a couple of things happened this week that are worthy of notice. First, US District Judge James Donato in SFO ruled Trump’s claim that Twitter violated his 1st Amendment rights when it banned him was basically BS. The suit was filed by the Conservative Union along with two anti-vaxers. Judge Donato demolished every claim by the plaintiffs.

    Then, Eric Schiffer, a financial guru, was interviewed by Business Insider. He supports Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. Schiffer said: “I think [Musk] will be able to thread the needle to be able to benefit society with greater free speech without it getting too far that it could be disruptive of society”. the phrase “disruptive of society” caught my eye. The phrase is so vague and broad you could drive a Mac truck through it! Schiffer added that he knows Musk understands the power of social media and through acquiring Twitter will give Musk the “ability to influence news, culture, society and certainly commerce”. Bingo! When you are the richest person in the world you can control the public dialogue about anything related to your businesses. That can’t be good for free expression.

    On another topic Trump did show up for the Kentucky Derby yesterday. In a photo Trump is seen waving at the mostly white crowd. Next to him is Kelly Craft, former US diplomat appointed by Trump. Kelly is the wife of the coal baron Joe Craft who gave millions to Trump’s campaigns. Craft had used his donations to influence Trump policy on coal. He got Trump to declare coal an “essential industry” during the early stages of Covid when many businesses were closing down. Nice to have friends in high places. When Trump won in 2016 Craft gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Not a good investment because Trump has just agree to pay $750,00 to settle a lawsuit claiming he and his family used the donations for their personal enrichment. It’s doubtful Joe Craft will demand the return of his donation.

  2. Jonathan: You have praised Elon Musk for wanting to own Twitter because he will “restore free speech to social media”. Really? In a SEC filing on Thursday Musk says he is getting funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar–two countries with some of the worst records on human rights and free speech in the world. In Qatar you can get 5 years for spreading “false or malicious news”. In Saudi Arabia government critics are arrested, jailed or even murdered. Jamal Khoshoggi, a frequent critic of SA in the Washington Post, was killed and his body dismembered by operatives of Crown Prince bin Salman.

    It’s interesting that just 3 weeks ago Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed, a Twitter shareholder, said he was opposed to Musk’s takeover. Now he has changed his tune after discussions with Musk and will invest $1.9 in Musk’s takeover bid. Qatar will invest $375 million. What did Musk promise Alwaleed? I have it on good authority you probably won’t see much criticism of SA’s dismal human rights record on a Musk owned Twitter. What was it you were saying about how good Musk will be for “free speech” on Twitter?

    1. So Dennis, you are saying that when Musk takes over Twitter that no criticism of Saudi Arabia will be allowed on the Twitter platform. You have absolutely no proof that such a thing will happen. We have received your unfounded warning and we have taken it into account. If it should happen I will publicly eat my words. The question is, if criticism of Saudi Arabia is allowed on Twitter will at you at least digest your preconceived prognostications? If so it would be a first.

      1. Thinkitthrough: Lighten up. I was tongue in cheek when I said “I have it on good authority…”. I have no idea, nor does anyone else, what was discussed between Musk and Prince Al Waleed. But we do know that after the Prince’s initial snub of Musk’s offer the latter asked (on Twitter) the Saudi stance on journalistic freedom of speech. Neither the Saudi government nor Al Waleed responded.

        What do we actually know about Al Waleed? In 2017, the same year Crown Prince bin Salman because the virtual ruler, Al Waleed was arrested in a “corruption crackdown”. A few days before his arrest Al Waleed reportedly contacted Khashoggi and invited him to return to the Kingdom. Khoshoggi refused because he knew what would happen if he did. Al Waleed was finally released after he paid $6 billion to settle the charges against him. Al Waleed learned a valuable lesson. Don’t cross the Crown Prince. Al Waleed got a further wake up call when Khashoggi was brutally murdered in Turkey. Al Waleed didn’t become a billionaire by ignoring the warning signs.

        So let’s engage in some speculation. Why would Musk ask the Saudis about journalistic freedom of speech? Musk knows what happened to Khashoggi and he knows what happens to other journalists who criticize the Crown Prince. If you are really committed to “free speech” you wouldn’t even ask the question of a country that is a serial abuser of free speech rights. Now here’s a “what if”. What if Musk actually acquires Twitter and allows Human Rights Watch or other human rights groups to publicly criticize Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince on Twitter– that is seen by millions in the Kingdom–especially the restless Saudi youth. Do you think bin Salman will take that lying down? Nope. He will call Al Waleed on the carpet and demand he cash in his $1.9 billion investment in Twitter. That will put Al Waleed and Musk between a rock and a hard place. If Al Waleed refuses he probably will be arrested again on “corruption” charges. So Al Waleed will go to Musk and say something like: “Elon, I know you are big on free speech but you need to ban Human Rights Watch and other groups from criticizing the Kingdom’s policies. Don’t jeopardize my investment”.

        So back to what changed Al Waleed’s mind? Has Musk already promised Al Waleed, and in turn the Crown Prince, that Twitter will not be a platform to criticize the Kingdom? We do know Musk has a thin skin when it comes to criticism. He has already banned Public Citizen from commenting on his Tweets. So if Musk is really committed to “free speech” he has to allow Public Citizen, Human Rights Watch and other like-minded groups on his platform. Time will tell. I know all of the above is pure speculation. But, hey, that’s what TV dramas are made of and the Musk saga is that, if nothing else. Sorry, but I have to get back to the novel I am writing. Guess who the fictional character in my novel?

      2. “We have”…who is “we”. I have required for a while that anonymity be disallowed from social media because it kills free speech. Johnathan did make a comment concerning this this past week on Twitter. It’s one of the core of re-establishing Free Speech, but it doesn’t appear to be one of the conditions here. I do believe that social media should be like a Town Square, but digital spaces tend to find ways to turn the town square more like a professional sporting event where the Big Players do their game, and people are just a crowd expressing their passion stratifically. Stratifying and organizinfg around commercial incentives, with status established by Packages of Suuscribers seem to consolidate this, therefore the “horizontallity” of the Public Square may well dissipates.
        The “Popupulist” modern politics sometimes acts with charm as a trick, where most people believe the Big guys are your best buddies and no more. I appreciate the less formal mode of communication populism has established, but people tend to forget what Power do to leaders, and Elon is the Richest individual on the Planet…My Paranoia is my privilege and will go on keeping me alive where others loose their credibility..

  3. The Government has been colluding for some time to censor the internet.

    https://www.cisa.gov/mdm

    MDM Guiding Principles
    What is MDM?
    Misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation make up what CISA defines as “information activities”. When this type of content is released by foreign actors, it can be referred to as foreign influence. Definitions for each are below.

    Misinformation is false, but not created or shared with the intention of causing harm.

    Disinformation is deliberately created to mislead, harm, or manipulate a person, social group, organization, or country.

    Malinformation is based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate.

    Foreign and domestic threat actors use MDM campaigns to cause chaos, confusion, and division. These malign actors are seeking to interfere with and undermine our democratic institutions and national cohesiveness. The resources provided at the bottom of this page provide examples and more information about MDM activities.
    Bridging Election Stakeholders and Social Media
    The MDM team serves as a switchboard for routing disinformation concerns to appropriate social media platforms and law enforcement. This activity began in 2018, supporting state and local election officials to mitigate disinformation about the time, place, and manner of voting. For the 2020 election, CISA expanded the breadth of reporting to include other state and local officials and more social media platforms. This activity leverages the rapport the MDM team has with the social media platforms to enable shared situational awareness.

  4. I hope Musk reads your post
    One more suggestion: to the extent there is any need for moderation, a much better and possibly relatively inexpensive solution could be:
    No censorship or moderation unless someone alerts on a tweet.
    The alert triggers an automated, random selection of 6 twitterers believed to be online at that moment and asks them if they’re willing to serve on a jury at that time. If they don’t respond within a very short time, the program disinvites them and asks more potential jurors until a full slate of 6 is reached.
    Those jurors are directed to the offending tweet, the thread in which it occurred, and the text of Twitter’s rules re- acceptable tweets, and then the jurors vote. A vote that the offending tweet violates the rules cannot be registered unless the juror specifies which rule they believe has been violated.
    If a majority of the jurors deem the tweet ok, nothing further happens; if a majority finds it violates the rules, the tweet is blocked and the original twitterer is immediately, automatically notified of the result and the standards deemed to have been violated. This entire process is usually completed within minutes.
    If the original twitterer wants to dispute the result, they can appeal it to Twitter. I would urge that Twitter should also provide a prompt decision and, if the tweet is to remain blocked, an explanation of which rule(s) had been violated.
    I have seen this method work extremely well in other fora, and I believe the whole process would be more thorough, much more transparent, much fairer, and probably quicker and cheaper to administer than what Twitter is doing now.

  5. Musk is getting funding from countries that don’t allow Free Speech for their citizens ….. To coin a phrase from the late great George Carlin

    That is what is known as being stunningly and embarrassingly full of sh*t ……

    1. Wow, “countries that don’t allow Free Speech for their citizens” investing in a company now owned by someone who promotes free speech. You’re right, that is embarrassing for them but I support their decision.

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