Elon Musk Is Not Taking His Own Advice
Musk wanted a 'content moderation council' to avoid a few execs making decisions on the fly. Too bad he's not doing that.
On April 25, after announcing his intent to buy Twitter for $44 billion, Elon Musk tweeted, "I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means." Fast-forward to December 15, and several journalists who had reported or tweeted critically about Musk from outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN were suspended from the platform. Many had reported about the chaos at the social media company; some, but not all, had tweeted about a suspended Twitter account that tracked the movements of Musk's private jet. Officially, each user was suspended because they "violate[d] the Twitter rules,” although no reasons were specified in the suspensions. However, Musk later claimed that the private jet account was "doxxing" him (the private jet information is public; and "doxxing" means the publishing of private information, like phone numbers and addresses). He falsely claimed the journalists were posting "basically assassination coordinates." On November 7, he said he had would not ban the private jet account because of his "commitment to free speech," although he reversed course this past week after he claimed that a car carrying one of his sons was accosted by a "crazy stalker." (The Washington Post reported that police in Los Angeles see no link between the private jet account and the incident.)
Many, but not all of the accounts were later reinstated. Many of the banned journalists were still able to speak in a live audio Twitter Space, which drew about 30,000 listeners, including Musk, who joined briefly and left in the middle of being questioned about the bans by the host, BuzzFeed reporter Katie Notopoulos. In the space, one of the banned reporters, Ryan Mac of the New York Times, explained how the suspension was likely directed from a high level because it was signed "direction of Ella,” referring to Twitter's head of Trust and Safety, Ella Irwin. (Musk disbanded Twitter's volunteer Trust and Safety Council on December 12.) Twitter later suspended Twitter Spaces for several hours.
Although Musk has proclaimed himself as a "free speech absolutist," his platform's suspensions of critical voices appears to be just the opposite. His view of free speech is that it is speech which "matches the law" and he said he is against "censorship that goes far beyond the law." The reporters broke no laws in their tweets; therefore, the suspensions go against his stated view of free speech. (Furthermore, his definition of free speech suggests he would be willing to cooperate with censors in Russia or China, because those countries have laws limiting free expression.)
Musk is doing the very thing that he had wanted to prevent -- a few people at the very top making capricious bans of critical individuals without any transparency. Earlier this month, Musk released a tranche of documents dubbed the "Twitter Files" to handpicked independent journalists Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi. The files showed the process behind Twitter's decision, in the runup to the 2020 election, to briefly block the sharing of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden. To Musk and conservatives, this was proof that the platform had too much power, including temporarily suspending accounts like Trump White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who tweeted the Biden story. The Twitter Files revealed staffers on guard for a foreign hack-and-leak operation, and debating content moderation without any formal process in place. The Post later said it got the material from Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon, not Russia or Julian Assange, as Twitter employees thought.
There is a better way for handling these incidents -- and it comes from Musk, who hasn't implemented what he promised. On October 28, he proposed a "content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints" that would handle such decisions. It's an excellent idea. But there are no signs that it is being put into practice. He also promised "no major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes," but has allowed back on former President Donald Trump and multiple conservative and incendiary accounts like the right-wing satire site The Babylon Bee.
Twitter has always been a fraction of the size of Mark Zuckerberg's Meta, but even Zuckerberg, who controls a majority of the company's shares, hasn't been this capricious. Social platforms come and go; Zuckerberg has shifted his attention from Facebook to the metaverse. Even before the latest bans, there are signs that Twitter is fading: Reuters reported that internal Twitter documents showed the most active tweeters -- who account for less than 10 percent of monthly users but generate 90 percent of content and half of global revenue -- have been in decline since the pandemic. There is a real risk that Twitter will meet the same fate as Facebook: a zombie platform that has lost its users' attention amid scandals.
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