Written by Alisha M.
“The bird is free,” tweeted Elon Musk, a pithy celebratory response to his successful buyout of Twitter. Musk’s main ambition for Twitter was to transform it into “an inclusive arena of free speech.” However, it turns out that the self-described “free speech absolutist” doesn’t fully understand the complexities of freedom of speech or how his proposed policies for Twitter could do more to cage the bird than set it free.
Content moderation actually protects free expression.
Elon Musk’s proposed solution to protecting free speech on Twitter is to scale back content moderation. In his view: content moderation is synonymous with censorship – a misguided belief held by many. This contention fails to acknowledge content moderation’s role in protecting free speech and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how freedom of speech/expression works.
The goals of content moderation differ from those of censorship. While censorship attempts to limit access to certain content, content moderation aims to foster an inclusive online environment by eliminating anything that could be deemed inappropriate or harmful. Similar to how real-life communities such as schools or households have rules and regulations, platforms also have guidelines for online behavior. By moderating content and removing posts that violate terms of service, such as hate speech and threats, platforms create a safer space for users to express their opinions, ideas, and beliefs freely and without fear of reprisal, ultimately upholding the fundamental principle of freedom of expression.
This is not to say the state of content moderation on social media platforms is perfect as it is – in fact, it’s far from it: we’ve seen TikTok take down Sushmita Regmi’s account of sexual abuse for “violating community guidelines,” Twitter restricting ordinary Arabic-speaking users as an acceptable trade-off in the fight against ISIS, and how models for automatic hate speech detection are 1.5 times more likely to flag tweets from Black people as offensive or hateful. Moreover, tech companies have often come under fire for their opaque content moderation policies, making it difficult for the public and policymakers to gauge whether these policies really align with public values and expectations. As we’ve witnessed the proliferation of misinformation, hate speech, and alt-right movements online, many have questioned these policies’ effectiveness and interests.
There is much work to be done to improve content moderation, but that doesn’t mean we should eliminate it entirely. Reducing content moderation means reducing safety and protection on Twitter, creating a dangerous environment where people can express hateful and threatening views without consequence. This would have particularly damaging consequences for communities such as women, queer folks, PWDs, activists, and racial, caste, or ethnic minorities who are more likely to be targeted with online abuse. And we’re already seeing this unfold: the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that since the buyout, the daily use of the n-word is triple the 2022 average, and the use of slurs against gay men and trans persons are up 58% and 62%, respectively. Many people with disabilities who used Twitter for activism, support, and community are now considering alternatives due to increased malicious messages. For marginalized groups, this is far from the “inclusive arena” that Musk “supposedly” aimed to build.
Elon Musk himself recently learned the perils of his decision to scale back content moderation when Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) used the platform to make vile antisemitic comments. Musk’s decision to suspend Ye’s account demonstrates why content moderation is necessary to protect freedom of expression. Yet, this is just one famous user that Musk suspended while under public scrutiny. Will the same rules apply to general users who harass people with disabilities on Twitter? What about white supremacists who spread hateful rhetoric on the platform? Currently, under Musk’s helm, where content moderation seems to only apply to high-stakes situations or people he isn’t personally fond of, harmful rhetoric will likely continue to breed mistrust and insecurity on the platform, particularly for marginalized groups.
“Authenticating all real users” puts communities at risk.
Another of Musk’s plans that have raised concern is his promise to “authenticate all real users” to counter some of the spam, bots, and trolling on Twitter. While well-intentioned, removing the right to anonymity is counterproductive to promoting free speech and expression.
Twitter’s provision of anonymity made the platform a vital haven for marginalized communities to find support, solidarity, and a sense of belonging. However, introducing identity authentication measures threatens this sense of safety and privacy. The risk that personal information and identity could be exposed and leaked could deter marginalized users (such as LGBTQ users or survivors of violence) from using the platform at all.
In countries with oppressive governments, the consequences of having one’s identity exposed can be especially grave. For example, in Saudi Arabia, Twitter Spaces became a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community to gather anonymously and freely discuss topics such as queer or gendered identities, premarital sex, relationships, and atheism – all things that would be considered taboo within most other public forums in the country and could potentially result in prosecution if their identities were revealed. In either case, the inability to use Twitter anonymously would be a devastating loss for marginalized communities who have long relied on the platform as a vital source of community and support that they may otherwise not find offline.
The removal of anonymity on Twitter would not only stifle support networks but also hinder the progress and visibility of social movements that have long relied on the platform for momentum. This is especially the case for those in countries experiencing conflict or living under oppressive regimes, as anonymity has allowed activists to share their experiences and galvanize social movements without fear of state-led persecution.
In Iran, for instance, Twitter has played an essential role in the anti-government protests, allowing Iranians to spread awareness about brutalities committed by authorities and the government. Similarly, Palestinians have long used the platform to share on-the-ground reports and call out biased media coverage. Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian digital rights advocate and writer, has referred to Twitter as a “lifeline” for Palestinians worldwide. She says, “It has managed to connect an otherwise fragmented population: Palestinians from Gaza, Jerusalem, Europe, and the US.”
As such, authenticating all users would be detrimental to such individuals. Allowing a billionaire with private interests (especially one whose stability has been called into question on multiple occasions) access to the personal data of millions of users could be a grave mistake. There is a risk that governments in major Tesla markets could request the personal information of dissenters from Musk, which could put activists and government opposers in danger. It is much easier to protect information that is not accessible, making user authentication a dangerous proposition. This is not too far-fetched, as governments have attempted this before. Consider when Twitter, in response to a legal threat, obliged with censorship requests from India’s government in 2021 and suspended over 500 accounts that were critical of Narendra Modi. When Twitter restored those accounts, the Indian government retaliated by holding Twitter employees hostage. Now, consider the situation if Twitter had access to personal data on those 500 accounts and was instead threatened to release that information.
If Musk implements his plan to authenticate all users: activists, government opposers, and marginalized members of society will be more reticent to express themselves freely on Twitter. It not only takes away the freedom of expression of a significant portion of users but also threatens their safety and, in grave cases, their lives.
It is clear from his proposed policies that Musk’s understanding of freedom of speech is flawed. However, it is likely that these policies are driven more by his own ideological motivations than a genuine commitment to protecting freedom of expression.
We’ve witnessed him suspend the accounts of progressive tech journalists while frequently endorsing anti-LGBTQ bigotry on Twitter. The recent blue-check fiasco is yet another example of how the platform is becoming more exclusive and prioritizing certain voices over others. Musk has even tweeted in the past that “Twitter obv has a strong left-wing bias.” So, it may very well be that his actions are calculated to reflect his own anti-progressive agenda.
Regardless, Musk’s vision of creating an environment of free speech only applies to those who already hold power and influence. For many, the proliferation of hate speech and the threat of lost anonymity on the platform raises serious questions about the ability to freely express oneself online. As we navigate this uncertain and potentially harmful new era of internet freedom, one thing is clear: the consequences of Musk’s ownership will do more harm than good in the fight to protect our fundamental right to freedom of expression online.
As a researcher, storyteller, and technologist, Alisha blends ethnography and data analysis to shed light on the unique stories of the communities she works with. She is deeply interested in the complex ways that technology intersects with society and shapes the way we live and connect with one another.