Elon Musk’s takeover of social media giant Twitter has got everybody… tweeting. Poor word plays apart, if Musk’s Twitter takeover is a big deal in business terms, it could be bigger still in what it means for the discussion of online freedom of speech.
During a TED conference, Musk dubbed Twitter as the ‘de facto modern public square’ and that “failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.” A few days later, Musk completed his successful takeover, pledging reforms to make Twitter more free speech friendly.
Platforms rank, sort and order the speech of others. They censor. They block. They boost. They silence. They decide who is seen and who remains hidden. Is speech “free” when it can be stifled by a tech firm without any appeal or oversight?
Liberals increasingly advocate for moderation of online speech, on the basis of hate crime, political correctness and misinformation. Conservatives and to a lesser extent, classical liberals, don’t necessarily agree. To see Twitter’s ideological inclination, compare Twitter’s donations to left-leaning Democrats against conservative Republicans.
Content moderation weeds out bullying, abuse and other forms of speech that are legal but make for an unpleasant experience online. Even free speech purist platforms Parler and Gettr eventually tightened up their censorship after being deluged with racism and porn. With hysteria on both sides of the ideological spectrum, social media platforms have become increasingly under fire for content moderation. It can also be used as an ideological tool.
Should it be private citizens (including business corporations and individuals) or democratically elected politicians? This is a very tricky question. Free speech should ultimately serve the best interest of private citizens. But sometimes, private citizens may engage in speech that is harmful to democracy or social cohesion.
Governments on their part are certainly on the move. The EU signed the Digital Services Act, obliging social networks to police speech on their platforms more closely. Britain is cooking up a still-stricter Online Safety Bill. Twitter filed 43,000 content-removal requests based on local laws in the first half of 2021, more than double the number two years earlier.
It would be naïve to think that politicians (who let’s not forget are also human) are not immune to the temptation of clamping down on dissident views under the guise of compassion (take a look back on our Canadian Truckers TLDR).
The classical limitations on free speech have been incitement to violence and breaking the law, libel, slander, pornography, obscenity, and intellectual property. The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that the fullest liberty of expression is required to push arguments to their logical limits, rather than being limited by social embarrassment.
More recently, prevention of serious personal offences has become more common. and as we mentioned, online speech can sometimes result in unpleasant experiences, trauma and public ridicule. Unlike bodily harm, however, offence is subjective. Discussing important matters comes at a high risk of offending someone. Being offended does not necessarily mean that an offence has been made. Even if it were, it is much more difficult to prove in court.
Preventing misinformation too is taking centre stage. But should the government have a monopoly on truth? The COVID-19 lab-leak theory was initially labelled as misinformation – now it is accepted as a valid hypothesis.
Certainly, there is ample evidence to show that Twitter and its peers need more transparency on their moderation practices. At the same time, total free speech is neither desirable in theory nor possible in practice. We won’t go into more detail on freedom of speech for now. It would be better if we left it to you to use your right to free speech to tell us your views.