Elon Musk’s effort to turn Twitter into a free speech platform has encountered angry resistance from the Left. The EU has demanded that he expand censorship, liberals have insisted that “hate speech” has proliferated since his takeover, and so on. As Scott noted earlier, members of Twitter’s “Trust and Safety Council,” who may or may not be out of a job, have denounced Twitter’s incipient libertarianism.
At the same time, liberals have sneered when Musk has acknowledged some need for content moderation, as though that somehow negated his commitment to free speech. There is a lot of fuzzy thinking going on here. Liberals talk about the “safety” of the platform, which makes little sense unless they are claiming that it may cause your cell phone to explode, causing personal injury. Musk, on the other hand, has at times described himself as a free speech absolutist. I am an absolutist, too, if you start with an understanding of what “speech” means.
I don’t think the issue of content moderation on a social media platform is particularly hard to resolve. First of all, on reflection anyone–including more-or-less absolutists like Musk and me–will agree that some content moderation is necessary. Bots should be banned, child pornography should not be permitted, users should not be allowed to conspire to commit terrorist acts.
Such content moderation can easily be reconciled with Musk’s commitment to free speech. I drafted a statute that was introduced, but not passed, in the last session of Minnesota’s legislature. It applied to a defined range of social media platforms, and banned discrimination in content moderation. Platforms could moderate content to their hearts’ content, but in doing so, they were prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, religion or political orientation.
The tech giants purported to be outraged by my proposal. They (Twitter, Facebook et al.) hired three industry groups to appear at a committee hearing to testify against it. They claimed that my bill would make it impossible to block child pornography or terrorist plots. Really? I asked. Please explain why you need to engage in race discrimination to prevent child pornography on your platform. They were unable to do so, of course. Their position was absurd.
One good thing about the anti-discrimination approach is that it is consistent with various degrees of content moderation. For example, a platform might want to enforce a minimum level of good taste. Thus, it might delete content featuring the severed head of Barack Obama, or use of the hashtag #RapeMichelle. Fine. But then, it would also have to ban content featuring the severed head of Donald Trump and the hashtag #RapeMelania, both of which were A-OK with Liberal Twitter.
If I were Elon Musk, I would announce whatever content moderation standards he wants to apply to Twitter. I would then add that those standards would be applied in a way that does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion or political orientation, and I would hire employees who would effectuate that commitment. Liberals would weep and gnash their teeth, but they would be unable to articulate a plausible objection to such a policy. As I know from experience.
The advice if free, Elon. If you take it, it will be the best bargain anyone offers you today.
UPDATE: A couple of additional thoughts. One might wonder whether banning “political orientation” discrimination is broad enough language, given that many of our most divisive controversies–e.g., the appropriateness of carving up children–may be seen as social, rather than political. Actually, “political orientation” was my shorthand, but the bill as drafted says “viewpoint,” which covers any sort of controversy or subject.
Second, neither my post nor my bill refers to “misinformation” or “disinformation.” Twitter, like the rest of the internet, is full of misinformation. The most notorious disinformation campaign of recent times was the Russia collusion hoax, which was all over Twitter, and perhaps still is. But sorting out the true from the false on a platform like Twitter is a hopeless endeavor, and identifying misinformation and disinformation can only be left to debate among users. I take it that this is largely what Musk means when he says he is in favor of free speech. It certainly is what the Founders had in mind.