Few words evoke more emotion than "freedom." It's etched into our psyches, and perhaps even our DNA. It serves as inspiration for constitutions around the world, and it's a fixture in television commercials.
So, when Elon Musk announced to the planet that he would make "free speech" the centerpiece of his shiny new toy, Twitter, it's no surprise that many reacted with Pavlovian predictability. They cheered and celebrated the prospect of greater freedom.
Clearly, some of this has to do with which direction a person's political compass points. Yet somewhere between polarized viewpoints and differing world view is a bigger problem. What exactly do the words "free speech" mean in today's digital landscape?
The press has mostly accepted Musk's statement that the $44-billion acquisition is a "free speech" crusade that will create wonderful online town squares brimming with democratic ideas! It's 1998 naivete revisited. The Internet will bridge the digital divide! It will end oppression and censorship! It's the dawn of a new era for world freedom!
This isn't 1776, or even 1976. No one assembles at a town square to politely share ideas and debate philosophies. The Federal Communications Commission's imperfect but beneficial Fairness Doctrine is now buried deep in history. Today's online world, while delivering an appearance of democratization, has introduced hidden traps and limitations that we can't see.
It's no secret that algorithmic engines run (and rule) the Internet—and Twitter. They amplify, magnify, and even distort ideas. They introduce biases and, too often, they discriminate. They also manipulate our minds—and our thinking.
Yet there's another aspect that too often goes unnoticed: behind these algorithms, there are human beings pulling levers. In this case, the man behind the curtain is Musk. His decisions, ideas and rules will become embedded into algorithms and hard-wired into the way Twitter operates—and people behave.
It's quaintly reassuring that Musk says he plans to operate a "politically neutral" social media site—whatever that means. As he tweeted: "For Twitter to deserve public trust it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally."
It also is nice that he wants to make the Twitter algorithm open source and freely visible to everyone. While this sounds great, there's no assurance that anyone will be able to extract anything meaningful from it. Yet even if people do somehow unlock the secrets of the Twitter universe, what then? More arguments about how to change it or what should ensue?
The idea that free speech can be neatly defined and inserted into an algorithm—or set of algorithms on a social media platform—is, of course, a complete myth. Likewise, the belief that he or anyone else can remain politically neutral in a social media platform or elsewhere is utterly absurd.
Which brings us to a crucial point: Musk, like everyone else, has a political ideology. However, unlike your crazy uncle Eddie who screams at the TV or incites a near riot at the family Thanksgiving dinner, Musk is a billionaire who was recently ranked the world's wealthiest person. In other words, he influences others on a grand cosmic scale.
There's no doubt that Musk will follow a similar path that Jack Dorsey and Twitter's leadership had to stumble down previously: he will have to establish a framework, with specific rules, to manage Tweets, conversations, and digital mudslinging.
Because even a free speech absolutist has to have some basic rules. Otherwise, anyone can use any word and any insult however they wish? Any rumor or form of gossip is acceptable? Accusing someone of an act they didn't commit or implying they engaged in socially unacceptable or criminal behavior is fine?
Do we really want Lord of the Flies?
And what about posting any type of pornography? Or how the concept of freedom of expression applies to different countries with entirely different laws?
Make no mistake, there will be a line; actually, lots of lines. What's more, even if Musk somehow accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of ensuring that everyone on the platform is verified, there's no way to guarantee that this will stop abuse—or that there will be any real penalty for the offenders.
Verification is a noble but deeply misguided concept that could have a profound negative impact on certain lines of work and those in sensitive positions, such as whistleblowers. Even if a person's identity isn't revealed, there's the distinct possibility that private data could be hacked. Unfortunately, verification could have the opposite of the intended effect: it could quell free speech.
Tossing around the words "free speech" doesn't create free speech—and it certainly doesn't create a better world. It merely obscures and obfuscates an inconvenient truth: there's suddenly a new set of human-imposed rules and opaque machine generated algorithms guiding the journey—and the daily discourse.
Yes, Twitter will wind up with different rules, results and outcomes—and it may be the better or worse for it. Along the way, some people will cheer, and others will jeer. But framing the discussion as a "free speech" issue is entirely disingenuous. This is simply a billionaire attempting to etch his world view into an algorithm—even if he brands himself a swashbuckling digital freedom fighter.
Samuel Greengard writes for Communications, among other publications. He is author of The Internet of Things (MIT Press) and Virtual Reality (MIT Press).
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