NOVEMBER 3, 2022
Ringo H.W. Chiu—AP–
It’s day seven of Elon Musk owning Twitter, and he’s making stream-of-consciousness policy announcements in a thread on the platform. Musk promises to end “Twitter’s current lords and peasants system,” while rolling out plans for users to pay $8 a month in order to remain verified and have their posts prioritized in “replies, mentions & search.”
In less than a week, he’s fired top executives, dissolved the company’s board of directors, used the site to spread a homophobic lie about the attack on Paul Pelosi, and unilaterally limited employees’ access to content moderation tools. With each of his proclamations, he’s making spur of the moment decisions that impact hundreds of millions of people, our democracy, and the future of online free expression.
Musk is tweeting things like “power to the people,” but the reality is setting in: Musk is the lord, and we’re all the peasants.
In the kingdoms of Silicon Valley, we humble users have little choice but to seek out the most benevolent monarch we can find, start farming in the shadow of their castle, and hope for the best. Musk seems uniquely ill-suited for the job of running a social media platform, and his chaotic rise to the throne likely foreshadows his reign.
But even if he were the courageous, rights-defending super genius that his supporters seem to think he is, Musk’s claim that “the bird is freed” would be bluster at best. The truth is that we will never have meaningful free speech or human rights as long as we’re all digitally landless, paying rent in dollars or data. If we want a modern town square we can leave to our children and our children’s children, we need to build online spaces that can’t be owned or controlled by a single person, with tools to address harm, harassment, and injustice that give individuals and communities power over our own online experience.
It’s hard to piece together a consistent ideology from Musk’s online musings, but it’s fair to say that he purchased Twitter because he believes social media platforms are too heavy handed and arbitrary in how they apply their content moderation and speech policies. I actually agree with him about that. He’s just wrong about who is most impacted by online censorship, and how to fix it.
While conservatives would have us all thinking that straight white male Trump supporters are the most oppressed group on social media, the data shows that Black and brown folks, women, religious minorities, and LGBTQ+ people are actually the most likely to have posts removed, videos demonetized, or accounts suspended for no good reason. Sex workers and adult content creators are the most directly targeted, having been chased off of most major platforms, and facing near constant uncertainty on the few that remain.
People from marginalized communities face another major obstacle to online free speech: ubiquitous harassment, threats of violence, and hate filled content that leads to toxic online spaces where many people do not feel safe enough to express themselves. We’re often led to believe that the only solution to this is to demand that digital overlords use their near absolute power more responsibly, and do a better job policing harmful and harassing posts. In the short term, pushing for better, more transparent, and more evenly enforced content moderation is a valid harm reduction strategy.
But we have to acknowledge the tradeoffs. When we ask for-profit platforms with millions of users to remove more content faster, it inevitably leads to over-removal of legitimate content, with the collateral damage disproportionately impacting marginalized people and communities outside the mainstream. Black Lives Matter organizers documented a pattern of over-removal across major platforms. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, activists fighting for abortion access have reported an uptick in suspensions and censored posts. Automated “anti-terrorism” filters employed by Twitter and other major platforms systematically suppress content from human rights advocates in Arab and Muslim countries. Platforms will often say that such posts were removed “in error.” But these systematic errors have a real impact on the ability of marginalized people to express ourselves and be heard.
Even truly well intentioned content moderation efforts can backfire. For-profit tech giants have all the wrong incentives, whether they’re beholden to advertisers or in massive debt to banks.
Creating online spaces that foster free expression and human rights is not a zero sum game, it’s a constant balancing act. Despite its aspirationally anarchist beginnings, Twitter has always been far from a utopia, whether under Jack Dorsey or Parag Agrawal. Beyond the ongoing privacy and security concerns, the platform has often failed to meaningfully address targeted harassment and just plain old spam, while enforcing its content rules haphazardly at best.
But, Twitter has also historically been one of the platforms that has at least tried to get creative beyond just wielding the ban hammer. The site has implemented content-agnostic prompts, like asking you if you want to read an article before you retweet it. Measures like that create some friction and can help slow down the viral spread of harmful content—without the company becoming the arbiter of truth.
Twitter’s legal team were some of the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment right to anonymous speech, and regularly pushed back against overly broad government demands. One of Musk’s first moves was to fire the woman leading that work.
Worse, Musks’ proposal to charge “power users” for verification and relegate everyone else to the bottom of the feed threatens the ability of human rights activists, journalists, and others to use the platform anonymously while still building a significant audience. Even those who can afford Musk’s verification tax may not be able to access Twitter Blue if it means the risk of being unmasked by having provided payment information or an ID. That’s the opposite of preserving free speech, and endangers people living under repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, one of Musks’ largest investors. And while Elon Musk is just the latest to propose the “white man’s gambit,” as Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it, the evidence is strong that real-names policies don’t do anything to reduce abuse or harassment online.
To be fair, Musk has proposed one good idea: making Twitter’s direct messages end-to-end encrypted so that only the people sending and receiving them can read them (something human rights advocates have been calling for for years.) But here’s the thing: even if King Elon makes positive changes or puts brilliant people in the right positions, they’ll serve only at the pleasure of the lord. He could give us a better Twitter, but he can always take it away.
That’s why we need to move past content moderation debates that amount to working the refs in a game we always lose, and start building a liberatory vision for the type of Internet we want.
There are some models to start working from. “Decentralization” as a buzzword has taken a hit over the last few years of overhyped cryptocurrencies and blockchain vaporware, but underneath all the grift and grime there are some valuable ideas about how decentralization could democratize the structure and governance of software projects, including social media platforms.
Many folks have been exploring Mastodon, an open source, federated social network where one can join or create different communities, each with their own rules and norms. My organization Fight for the Future uses Matrix, a decentralized alternative to Slack, for our virtual office. There’s also Bluesky, kickstarted by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, which seeks to turn Twitter’s underlying code into a decentralized protocol that anyone could use to build online communities. Imagine social media being more like email: you can choose Gmail, or a more privacy preserving service like ProtonMail, but either way, you can still keep in touch with your friends, and change your inbox settings to fight spam.
It’s a rocky road from here to there. Twitter has often been a cesspool, but it’s also been a powerful tool wielded by activists, artists, and revolutionaries fighting for change. I’ve used Twitter as a primary way of communicating with people who might want to hear from me for 11 years—and I’m regretting some of my choices. It’s daunting to think about finding a new home for my personal and professional online life. Even the leading open source alternatives have a ways to go on accessibility, ease of use, and attracting enough users to attain network effect.
Big Tech’s monarchies, desperate to keep their loyal subjects and the ad revenue we generate, have intentionally made it hard to leave the kingdom in search of better digital pastures. This is one area where lawmakers can help: There’s still a chance after the election for Congress to pass two bipartisan antitrust bills––the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) and the Open App Markets Act (OAMA)––which would crack down on the anti-competitive practices and self-dealing that the largest tech companies use to stay in control.
No one knows what Lord Musk will do with Twitter tomorrow, or the next day. It’s time we start fighting for a future where our digital homes don’t tremble precariously on virtual land, controlled by mercurial billionaires.