The world's richest man, a "free-speech absolutist," buys Twitter. Is this good news for the little guy, for the marginalized, for truth?

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Everyone has their line.

Even 4chan, a supposedly “anything-goes platform” that many think is the worst manifestation of the internet, had a line. It was an animated depiction of child pornography, as well as concerted attacks on female journalists and others associated with Gamergate.

The result? 8chan was started as an even more “libertarian” vacuum for morality by Fredrick Brennan, who had been on 4chan since the age of 12. For his new forum, Brennan promised to allow anything and everything as long as it didn’t break US law. Legal speech was welcomed, no matter how toxic it was.

As Brennan told Know Your Meme, “Imageboards are the most important medium for free speech on the internet. Imageboards are a haven for [terrible things] … and that’s exactly what makes them such wonderful places. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Brennan did not police 8chan’s forums, which were dedicated to pedophilia, suicide, and concerted harassment or trolling. Instead, he relied on self-censorship.

The result was that 8chan became a haven for violent extremists and mass shooters, child pornography, and other questionable content.

Brennan had a road to rationality moment and eventually asked for it to be taken down, stopping working with its then 2019 owner. It has since morphed into other things, with the owners Jim and son Ron Watkins, who live in the Philippines and are quite probably “Q” from the QAnon conspiracy.

And now, Elon Musk and Twitter

If you’ve had your head in the sand for the last week, you might have missed the news that the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, will now be the king of content moderation on the world’s biggest news, media, entertainment, and information content platform. For some $44 billion, Musk will privately own the whole site.

It’s worth remembering that those who frame themselves as free speech advocates are more often than not hate speech advocates. As activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins says: “The guys who always seem to be championing free speech the loudest are the ones who were the most dishonest about it. They only seem to defend free speech for the jerks out there – the people who want to try to do the most harm and are trying to undermine the freedoms of others.”

No one waxes lyrical about free speech if they only say nice things about quiltmaking. Unless one is talking very much from an intellectual position (as I have done in the past concerning my own comments boards), people who shout about free speech generally want to say things that are controversial and most probably offensive.

Whichever way you look at it, Musk will have to draw a line. The question on everyone’s mind at the moment is where will Musk’s line be?

TikTok recently made a decision about a girl who was trying to make slime but accidentally made napalm. TikTok took the video down, deciding that this would be dangerous—an issue if others came across a video detailing how to make slime. What would Musk’s Twitter do?

With Musk taking his company private, the line will be his. He will become the moral arbiter of Twitter. But where will his line between free speech and hate be drawn? When, if anywhere, will something become too offensive?

Just imagine how hateful and poisonous Twitter already is—a Twitter with shareholders and a board and outward-facing decision-making. There are whole areas of Twitter that act as cultural, moral cesspits. There are rules in place to try to mitigate this, to try and control and eradicate the worst excesses.

“The guys who always seem to be championing free speech the loudest are the ones who were the most dishonest about it. They only seem to defend free speech for the jerks out there – the people who want to try to do the most harm and are trying to undermine the freedoms of others.”

Daryle Lamont Jenkins

Will Musk’s acquisition improve this situation? It’s that simple a question. Will a man who so strongly advocates free speech put more regulation in place or will he remove regulation?

It’s worth remembering that he has form.

Let’s not forget the “pedo guy” incident

Back in 2018, some boys were trapped in a Thai cave system that filled with water. A British diver, Vernon Unsworth, was one of the team members who rescued those trapped boys and who ridiculed Musk’s attempts to build a submarine to help out. The sub was actually built and delivered, though unused, as the divers were the ones who rescued the boys, with one diver dying in the process.

Musk called Unsworth, to his 22 million followers at the time, a “pedo guy.” He then apologized and deleted the tweets before then reviving them in another set of tweets a month later, also calling Unsworth a “child rapist” in an email to a BuzzFeed reporter. In the ensuing court case, Musk claimed that “pedo guy” is a common insult in his home country of South Africa. Hard to take this approach when you have also specifically called the man a “child rapist,” but there it is.

Musk won the defamation case. It probably helps when you can afford the best lawyers money can buy.

Given that history and more, the waters we are entering are murky. Uncharted. Dangerous. And when you have a self-declared “free-speech absolutist” at the helm, it’s hard to have confidence in the destination.

Disinformation and misinformation

People spread untruths around by mistake and on purpose, and they spread at a far faster pace than truth. This is dangerous. It costs lives.

As an organization that deals in the massive and instant dissemination of information to all corners of the globe, Twitter (whether it likes it or not) is at the heart of disinformation campaigns.

I know this from personal experience. I have recently become obsessed with the Ukraine conflict and by necessity, Twitter. I spend around three hours a day on the platform culling information on the latest events and armament destruction in the warzone. There are untold numbers of Russian propaganda profiles and bots spreading immeasurable falsehoods, much of which can be dangerous.

Last week, I reported one profile for outright falsehoods—claims that we know will spread faster than the real truth of such events. A few days later, Twitter contacted me to say thank you and that the profile had been taken down.

That was a win for truth. But under a “free speech absolutist,” truth has every chance of losing out.

I cannot see the acquisition as being beneficial in any way, and I do have worries over the truth and information wars:

Australian lobby group Digital Rights Watch has expressed concern that while Musk claims the takeover is about free speech, it’s actually about power.

“While free speech is important, you have to account for asymmetries of power and other barriers that stop people from speaking freely,” chair Lizzie O’Shea said.

“Musk’s style of free speech absolutism will tilt the scales in favour of the rich and powerful who can silence or bully critics. What Musk really seems to want is freedom from accountability.

“Musk’s proposed approach to content moderation will likely make Twitter a less safe place for many people to speak freely while allowing powerful disinformation and propaganda campaigns to spread unchecked.”

“This is going to be a world of hurt”

The question for Musk is how far toward 8chan does he want to go? Is this about profit or philosophy? Is it about making a business that is profitable, global, useful? Or is it about making something that provides a free speech space? Because the latter option will lose him users by the bucket-load as they soon come to realize that the worst of humanity is allowed to flourish in such communities of free speech.

The waters we are entering are murky. Uncharted. Dangerous. And when you have a self-declared “free-speech absolutist” at the helm, it’s hard to have confidence in the destination.

Ben Collins, a reporter who covers disinformation, extremism, and the internet for NBC News, thinks that the acquisition is fraught with problems. “If he thought this was going to be fun, I don’t know what is going on in his head because this is going to be a world of hurt,” he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “Everybody who thinks that they want complete unfettered free speech on the internet, they meet their line eventually.”

Don’t forget that there are a huge number of people who have developed and curated that space for a number of years, and Musk’s move to make it his own private entity and free speech plaything is really worrying. As Collins reported, “There are a lot of people at this company who are afraid. I’ve talked to people inside the company over the last few days and they are afraid, not just for their jobs but for the product that they built and the town square they built. They put a lot of work into this thing and they are afraid of what’s going happen to a guy who has never done content moderation before, taking over this platform.”

Welcome back, everyone!

The list of those banned on Twitter is long and tawdry. Richard Spencer, Stefan Molyneux, Gavin MacInness, Donald Trump and other white supremacists, Alex Jones and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s personal account, Milo Yiannopoulos, vaccine skeptic Dr. Robert Malone, and so on.

USA Today reports:

“Musk’s conception of free speech is people being able to express things that are odious, hateful or even targeted harassment against other users,” said Emerson Brooking, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “Twitter up until now has drifted toward a different definition of free speech, this idea that by reducing harassment and overt hate you create an opening for as many as voices as possible to express themselves.”

Todd said she’s deeply concerned by Musk’s past business practices and his statements about free speech “absolutism.” She worries a platform that is already hostile to marginalized communities will just get worse under Musk. 

“Black women specifically are disproportionately targeted for things like conspiracy theories, disinformation and online harassment and that keeps Black women from doing things like running for office and from making their voices heard on political issues,” Todd said. “When our social media platforms—our places for public discourse—are not places where everybody can show up meaningfully, that means we do not have a functional democracy.”

There are already problems with Twitter. Will the acquisition make already existing problems worse or better? I don’t think you need to be a qualified expert to guess the answer.

It might be that extremist voices might be allowed to return through anonymous identities, something that is already an issue.

Money well spent?

The Biden Infrastructure Bill is putting $7.5 billion dollars towards building charging points and capacity for electric vehicles (EVs) all over the US in an attempt to move into the future and disentangle the US from its reliance on hydrocarbons. This will benefit Musk, the owner of EV manufacturer Tesla. At the same time, Musk is throwing $44 billion into buying a media content platform potentially so he and others can say what they want, no matter how toxic.

Now I know that his efforts in Ukraine with his Starlink satellite system have been shown to be a brilliant move, but I think the money he is throwing at Twitter as an odd vanity project could be so much better spent.

That’s not to say that some of his ideas for Twitter improvement might well be good and have legs. But when someone so strongly advocates for free speech, it almost always means that they just can’t wait to say something offensive, or allow others to say something offensive so they can sit on the sidelines and silently agree with a smug grin, or shout approval with flags raised.

The present line of demarcation for Twitter is just about around the area of acceptability. Where will Musk draw his line? Almost certainly further down the track than it already is, that much is obvious. And that is further away than I want it to be than it is safe for it to be. This will not only be a challenge for certain people and groups, but for truth.

We are living at a time of war, climate change, and pandemics, but one crisis that connects all of these is the epistemic crisis. We worry about cyber-security and national security, but we should also worry about epistemic security.

I think we are warranted in worrying about Twitter.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...