3 Ways Musk Can Support Free Speech

Way back in the Paleolithic age of April, Elon Musk seemed excited to buy Twitter and said that he wanted to transform the site by promoting free speech.

A lot has happened since then: Musk says he no longer wants to buy Twitter, and the company is suing to force him to go through with the acquisition. There was a court hearing today.

The deal might still happen. In today’s newsletter, I will explore three suggestions for what Musk can do if he eventually owns Twitter and is serious about expanding the boundaries of online expression.

Provide more transparency into Twitter’s inner workings

Moderating online conversations can be hard, and Twitter and other social media sites mess up with some regularity. Moderators make questionable calls, and people sometimes don’t know why a post was removed or why Twitter did or didn’t take action.

Online freedom and trust would be enhanced if people could understand the decisions Twitter, Facebook and YouTube make and had a chance to air their grievances. That requires more investment and openness from Twitter and its peers to explain their sometimes difficult judgment calls regarding online expression, and easier ways for users to appeal those decisions.

Advocates have also proposed changing laws to ensure that journalists and academics can analyze what happens under the hoods of sites like Twitter. Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, suggested on Twitter last week that Musk could order an independent audit of the company’s content moderation policies and practices.

Making Twitter’s inner workings transparent won’t alter what people can or can’t say there. But it could build the public’s confidence if there were more answers to important questions such as: Do social media algorithms suppress conservative viewpoints? How often does Twitter make mistakes, either by keeping posts that break its rules or by removing posts in error? How do Twitter’s computer systems amplify political content?

Allow more political expression

Several experts in online speech have told me that Musk could build trust in Twitter as a place that encourages a vigorous exchange of ideas by ensuring that the site allows posts from U.S. elected officials and candidates and only restricts discussions of political topics in extreme cases.

Deciding when Twitter and other sites should intervene and delete political posts or ban accounts is the challenge. We saw this debated when many people believed that Donald Trump and other officials had too much leeway to post false claims about election fraud on Twitter before and after the 2020 presidential election.

But the Knight First Amendment Institute has said that it’s important for sites to give a “heavy presumption in favor of leaving political speech up” and “respond in a measured way to violations” of community standards.

What the experts are saying, essentially, is that people benefit from evaluating what their elected leaders say and from talking about their government and its policies, even if some of the conversations contain misleading information or even bigotry. That’s not far from what Twitter’s policies already say.

There are limits to a hands-off approach to online political speech. Twitter has experimented with adding flawed but worthy contextual information to potentially misleading political posts. And most experts in online expression believe that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were justified in booting Mr. Trump from their sites after the Capitol riot last year. (Some of them believe his suspensions should now be lifted.)

Challenge governments that restrict citizens’ expression

Rarely in the U.S. are America’s internet companies put in the position of needing to protect ordinary people from online censorship, harassment or violent incitement by their own government. But that happens regularly outside the U.S.

Twitter has at times been a strong defender of citizens who use the service to criticize their own leaders. It sued India this month to challenge the government’s interpretation of a law that restricts posts related to civil liberties, protests and press freedom. It could do far more.

If Musk were serious about giving a voice to people who are far less powerful than he is, he could commit to pushing back when governments try to crack down on free expression — and encourage the U.S. government to support internet companies when they do so.

We need to keep discussing how relatively new means of communication and persuasion should operate to enhance our understanding of the world.

  • Anonymity is “the ultimate double-edged sword.” NGL is the latest app to let people post anonymous questions and comments, my colleague Valeriya Safronova writes. Previous anonymous messaging apps like ASKfm, Secret and Yik Yak struggled to contain bullying and threats of violence and eventually flamed out.

  • Necessity is the mother of invention: The Verge writes an engaging history of the blind programmers who created two generations of screen readers, programs that speak aloud the text on a computer screen. The inventors — including two who met as children at an Australian music camp — filled a gap in technology that was mostly created by sighted programmers.

    Related: Some blind and low-vision people say that automated tools that were supposed to make websites more accessible to them instead have made it more difficult to use screen readers, my colleague Amanda Morris reported.

    Earlier from On Tech: ‘Disability Drives Innovation’

  • Nepal is tired of your TikTok videos: Some tourist and religious sites in the country have tried to ban people from recording online videos on their grounds. “For them, it’s fun getting all the likes, but for visitors like us, it’s disturbing,” a frequent visitor to a sacred garden in Lumbini told Rest of World.

Don’t bother telling the dog that it’s growling at a statue.

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