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What’s behind Elon’s Twitter disaster? A fundamental misunderstanding of ‘free speech’

What’s behind Elon’s Twitter disaster? A fundamental misunderstanding of ‘free speech’
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What’s behind Elon’s Twitter disaster? A fundamental misunderstanding of ‘free speech’

As was widely predicted, there’s been a great deal of chaos since Elon Musk purchased Twitter: Advertisers fleeing, mass firings, hate speech spiking, a plague of fake accounts, even talk of bankruptcy. At this point it’s easy to forget the early warning signal when Musk tweeted a link to a baseless anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the Paul Pelosi attack from a known misinformation website that had once pushed a story that Hillary Clinton died on 9/11. But it was precisely the sort of telling, seemingly minor and idiosyncratic act that poets and playwrights since time immemorial have locked onto as character portents of destiny.

That came just a few news cycles after Musk assured advertisers that “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-fall hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences,” promising that “our platform must be warm and welcoming to all.” Musk deleted the Pelosi link after it had already gotten more than 24,000 retweets and 86,000 likes — in other words, after the damage had already been done. Needless to say, there were no consequences for Musk, at least not right away.

That made me think of Chris Bail’s book, “Breaking the Social Media Prism” (Salon interview here) and his ideas about how to build a better platform — meaning both one more civil and more likely to produce reliable information. If Musk genuinely wanted Twitter to “become by far the most accurate source of information about the world,” he’d listen to Bail, a leader in the growing community of social science researchers who’re developing a sophisticated understanding of our emerging online world. So I reached Bail what he made of the situation, before turning to others as well. While Twitter’s financial woes and disastrous non-moderation policies have been big news over the past week, they remain rooted in the realities that Bail and his colleagues have studied intensively for years.

Bail suggested that Musk’s retweet of the nonsensical Pelosi story was an attempt to “make a point,” that being that “there’s always two sides to every story, and seeing this as an opportunity to demonstrate that Twitter has some kind of bias in favor of liberals.” But sharing such blatantly misleading information, he continued, “demonstrates what happens if any person tries to make content moderation decisions on their own. You get suboptimal outcomes, because drawing the line between what’s acceptable and not acceptable is always going to inspire debate and criticism and disagreement.”

What Bail found “particularly tragic” was that “Twitter already has mechanisms in place to promote effective content moderation. The one that’s most important in my view is the Birdwatch initiative, which empowers Twitter’s users to label posts misleading or false in a sort of crowd-source model, where people can then agree with those annotation, and they become boosted in the Twitter timeline.” That sort of “community-led model,” Bail said, can avoid the “hot take” mistake Musk apparently made.

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