Opinion | Elon Musk’s Twitter deal exposes biased hypocrisy about free speech

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For more than a decade, conservatives have complained that technology giants are using their power over platforms to suppress conservative views. Their complaints have not received much sympathy outside the movement. But they may want to now that Elon Musk is buying Twitter, and the left is uneasy at the prospect of an owner hostile to its designs – specifically an owner promising less aggressive moderation policies, possibly including restoring Donald Trump to the platform.

“This agreement is dangerous for our democracy,” exclaimed Late. Elizabeth Warren (D-Messe). Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and New York Times columnist Charles Blow promised to delete their accounts if the acquisition goes through. And the Clinton administration’s Secretary of Labor Robert Reich complained: “Musk and his apologists say that if consumers do not like what he does with Twitter, they can go elsewhere. But where else should consumers go to send short messages that can reach millions of others people than Twitter? “

All of these messages were, of course, posted on Twitter. And they all sound… a lot like conservatives, until about five minutes ago.

Back in the old days, it was Republican senators who complained that Big Tech’s control over discourse was a threat to American democracy. Meanwhile, the leftist fervently explained that Twitter is a private company – should not conservatives love private property? – and has a perfect right to set the moderation policy it wants.

What a difference an agreement makes! Suddenly, “private companies can do what they want” may not be quite enough to ensure a robust, democratic debate on the vital issues of our time – and “start your own social media platform if you do not like it” seems a somewhat inadequate line. to those who complain.

It still leaves the argument that conservatives – and Musk – are simply mistaken that moderators on social media are systematically “depleting” conservative ideas instead of fighting their way through the messy, complicated process of moderating any platform on a large scale. Yishan Wong, former CEO of Reddit, made this case shortly after Musk announced his plan to buy Twitter.

Wong suggests that the freewheel policies of a decade earlier, when a Twitter boss proudly called the company “the Freedom of Expression Party’s Freedom of Expression wing”, Were fine for the old days of the internet, when networks were small. But as the user base multiplied, harassment, libel, pornography, spam, and other abusive behaviorand platforms were forced to shut down so that all their users did not flee.

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The sheer scale of the networks inevitably made it controversial. Many users held many views, including disagreement about what exactly crosses the line. It also meant that many moderators rated gray areas differently, so similar cases are not always resolved in the same way. But such minor imperfections are not a conspiracy against free speech or conservatives, and if Musk tries to turn the clock back to an earlier era, he will quickly discover why all of these policies were necessary.

All this sounds very reasonable, very convincing… and yet.

Of course, Wong is right that a certain degree of moderation is needed; if platforms did not control spam, doxxing, slander, pornography and violent images, users would leave or sue. But it does not follow that they should also crack down on vaccine skepticism, people who think trans women are not really women, or media stories about Hunter Biden’s shady business connections, just to name a few of the views Twitter has on some . point considered prohibited.

These latter policies were not necessary to keep the platform usable by all; they were a choice to make the platform more comfortable for certain users and views. That this was the effect is clear from the skewed reaction to the prospect of less moderation. If things were really that straightforward, the left would not be flipping while the right wing was celebrating.

(If you’re tempted to suggest that the right wing is just breaking the rules more, well, that’s the point; of course Conservatives will end up breaking the rules more if left-wing moderators write them according to their own dogma – and make all the close calls in favor of the home team.)

Now one can argue that right-wing views should be suppressed because they are hateful and backward and dangerous to democracy. That argument is pretty common. But one could also ask if it is not a little dangerous when a social media platform undertakes to define and massage the discourse in this way. Maybe even a little… undemocratic.

After all, our deepest political divide cannot be moderated away; they must be argued through, no matter how uncomfortable the view is, or how much we prefer to only listen to our own side. And where can we hash out the tough problems, if not on Twitter, the digital water cooler where the global political class gathers?

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