The acquisition of Twitter by the world’s wealthiest individual, Elon Musk, will almost certainly have far-reaching consequences for the way the global public sphere functions, since Twitter, in spite of having a much smaller user base than other social media platforms like Facebook, is widely viewed as the leading digital forum for public deliberation, and is used by many influential public figures, from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum.
Musk has made a persuasive case that Twitter, even if privately owned, is de facto very much like a town square, where a large chunk of important public business is debated by citizens and public figures, and therefore performs a vital public function in a democracy. Musk has publicly stated that he believes Twitter should err on the side of permitting lawful content, and be very slow to impose permanent account suspensions.
If Mr Musk is serious about making Twitter a platform used and respected by people of all shades of opinion, and erring on the side of permitting rather than restricting speech, then his takeover of the company should give rise to a significant liberalisation of its content moderation policies.
To the extent that Twitter has increasingly aligned its content moderation policies with contested political positions, such as the use of transgender pronouns, the right of transgender individuals to compete in female athletic competitions, the desirability of administering emergency vaccinations to populations at relatively low risk from Covid-19, the nature and extent of harmful vaccine side-effects, and the efficacy of experimental Covid treatments, it has undermined its own credibility as an open platform for public speech and artificially impoverished the quality and breadth of public debate.
Twitter’s presumption to disqualify contributions to pandemic debates based on their failure to align with the statements of official bodies like the WHO rested on the problematic assumption that official scientific bodies enjoy a monopoly over truth, or cannot be reasonably contested by citizens outside officialdom, including citizens with impeccable scientific credentials.
The buy-out of Twitter by a trenchant advocate of free speech presents a unique opportunity to transform Twitter from an ideologically, politically, and scientifically partisan platform into a platform on which voices of the left and the right, and everything in between, are able to get a fair hearing.
Under Musk’s stewardship, Twitter could potentially become a platform in which conflicting perspectives could duel it out and get subjected to rational scrutiny without fear of being shut down or shadow-banned for offending someone on the Board of Directors.
Yet evidently, things are not quite so simple as that. The quality of our public sphere clearly depends not only on freedom of speech, but also on the moral and scientific quality of public discourse. A free public sphere is well and good, but if it is filled with uncivil trolls and hooligans, it may become morally and politically toxic.
In acquiring Twitter, Musk inherits the unenviable yet important task of deciding what content in this large chunk of the global public sphere should be restricted, and what content should be tolerated.
While it is true that loosening content moderation rules would allow intelligent dissenting voices in the political and scientific community to enrich and enlarge public debate, and to challenge prevailing preconceptions, it is also true that loosening content moderation rules would allow broader latitude for low quality, misinformed, and offensive interventions.
Furthermore, it is not always easy to ascertain when an intervention crosses over into the territory of unlawfulness or violence. For example, is expressing a desire to harm someone or see bad things happen to them incitement to violence? Is making false and damaging insinuations about their conduct a form of unlawful defamation? Any content moderation policy will have to make tough calls on these sorts of tricky questions on a regular basis.
Finally, free speech is clearly no panacea for the wide-ranging pathologies of the digital public sphere, including its highly centralized ownership structures, its tendency to favour highly emotive and sensational interventions; and its generation of ideologically uniform communities of users or ideological “echo-chambers.”
Nonetheless, if Musk follows through on his promise to make Twitter a less censored and more ideologically open platform, that will at least be a step in the right direction.
This article is a revised version of a post on the author’s Substack, The Freedom Blog.