The future of Twitter and of Elon Musk’s ownership of this platform are problematic. That said, it has been clear that Twitter had lost the plot in several respects and could benefit from new ideas and leadership. I’ve used Twitter for over a decade (13 years) and continue to value this platform, such as for posting my thoughts and notifying others about events and publications. However, Twitter lost its way on appropriately moderating content and in developing a sustainable revenue model.
Since the earliest days of bulletin board systems (BBS), interactive web sites had to moderate content to survive. That said, at some point, moderating content can move too far and become censorship. Blocking unlawful content is acceptable but censoring lawful content or content creators needs to be aligned with the spirit of a free, open, and global internet. For example, it’s good to identify and block malicious sites responsible for manufacturing disinformation and computational analytics are getting better and better at making these calls. We all block spam email for instance. But many decisions on identifying bad actors, malicious disinformation campaigns, or a malicious post are a judgement call.
That is one reason why platforms like Twitter have boards to review and make recommendations on controversial cases. In the case of putting a lifetime ban on a sitting president, as Twitter did, I can only agree that Twitter’s trust and safety group made a bad decision. Freedom of expression protects the right of individuals to hold opinions and express them without government interference, even if you find them to be deeply offensive, or – for Pete’s sake – on your wrong end of the political spectrum.
Censoring Trump not only made Donald Trump’s tweets even more famous – the so-called Barbara Streisand effect, but also failed to recognize that any words of a sitting president were not only political speech but also legitimate news. Apparently, even Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO at the time of this ban, did not agree with this decision of Twitter’s own safety committee.
Committees like this tend to be filled with too many of the great and good from the press and broadcasting who too often fail to understand or support the idea of a free and open internet. But it is important to realize that if you regulate social media as if it were a newspaper or broadcaster, you will eventually be regulated like one and undermine the potential of the internet and social media for freedom of expression.
In the US, the first amendment is focused on preventing government censorship of expression, not private companies. But private internet and social media platforms – as interactive computer services – are protected from being held accountable as the publisher or speaker of content communicated by the users of their platform if they are not acting as if they are the editor or publisher of this content with allowances made for acceptable moderation. But governments across the world are moving rapidly to force internet and social media platforms to take greater responsibility for content that may be wrong or harmful, such as by threatening their executives with huge fines or criminal penalties. While the public are focusing on the pandemic and the Russo-Ukraine War, governments are moving forward on plans to reduce freedom of expression online in dramatic ways. All the more reason to save Twitter from becoming the editor of its users.
In my opinion, new ownership holds the potential to help Twitter reset its position on content moderation to be more appropriate and avoid censorship of expression generally and political speech, specifically. Critics of Elon Musk have argued that Twitter will never achieve the ideal of a public sphere, conceptualized by Jürgen Habermas, the German sociologist. Yes, no argument. However, while Habermas is a brilliant academic who developed a seminal conception, his idea of public sphere was probably never ever realized. It was a very romantic view of political debate even in earlier eras and again and again proven to be a silly model for today’s online world.
Similarly, others have said Twitter will not be the town square. Again this model is a romantic view of town squares. For years, I studied the first electronic city hall, the Public Electronic Network (PEN), since it was launched in 1989 in Santa Monica, California. It was a vibrant experiment for about six years until the internet attracted PEN users off what was a local interactive system to an open global internet. PEN also had an absolute adherence to first amendment principles but implemented in ways that undermined its use over its early years. For example, parents did not want their children (who were avid PEN users) to see some of the language used online. PEN might have survived if he had begun with clear ‘rules of order’ in the spirit of almost any deliberative democratic body, but it proved impossible to impose rules on what was conceived and thrived as a more open system.
Twitter may never approach the ideals of a public sphere or town square. These are not realistic models for the use of social media. It will not be a debating forum. However, it can be a platform supporting the free expression of ideas in ways that can enhance the communicative power of individuals and institutions. But even to achieve this aim, it needs to be as free, open, and global as possible. That will require appropriate content moderation, but certainly not disproportionate censorship of political speech.
A Business Model
It is also the case that Twitter has yet to develop a sustainable revenue model. This a challenging area requiring innovative ideas. The platform cannot be a free and open space if hidden behind paywalls and if inundated by advertisements and popup ads.
Saving Twitter will require creative ideas on appropriate content moderation and its revenue or business model. It will need a review board that understands and believes in the potential for the internet and social media to support greater freedom of expression than exists in the press and broadcasting both of which are becoming too incentivized to take partisan political stances and in part to enhance their paid subscription models.
It will be networked individuals on the internet and using social media that we will increasingly depend on to hold the press, government, and other institutions more accountable in this digital age. Twitter is only one of many promising free and open platforms that even liberal democratic nations need to thrive in this age, but it is one important piece of the larger puzzle.