How Free is Twitter?

By Shefali Kumar

In light of the controversial Twitter Files release, and Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, social media platforms are being called out for their content moderation. While the outcry largely comes from right-wing politicians, claiming banned accounts and flagged posts are a violation of their free speech, it begs the question: to what extent are social media platforms responsible for monitoring the content we see? It seems reasonable to expect that platforms should take down content that is harmful, misleading, inappropriate, dangerous, etc. But content moderation gets sticky when it comes down to the business of keeping a platform alive; and when politics get involved.

Politicians and other public figures, such as Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and others, claim that their banned Twitter accounts directly violate their right to free speech, granted by the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. Since acquiring Twitter, Elon Musk has made it clear that he intends to reinstate banned accounts and loosen the rules around content moderation in the name of protecting free-speech.

While the First Amendment grants U.S. citizens the right to freedom of speech, it only protects an individual from government restrictions on speech. The protections under the First Amendment do not extend to a user’s right to post misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic or insight violence against U.S. Congress members for refusing to overturn an election that was fairly lost. Twitter is a privately owned platform and it could be argued that it is therefore not protected under the First Amendment. When a user signs up for an account, they are signing up in agreement with the terms and conditions set forth by the platform.

While it evidently isn’t part of Elon’s philosophy, I do believe that media platforms have a responsibility in content moderation, in the interest of keeping their users safe and tackling disinformation. The problem with Elon’s approach to managing Twitter is that not all thoughts deserve to be heard. Do we really need to provide a platform to people like Gavin McInnes and Andrew Tate, both notorious for popularizing and promoting extreme violence online: both of whom have also successfully utilized their platforms to garner mass amounts of followers who willingly subscribe to their content. Or is allowing far-right and extremist content on the platform supporting a true marketplace of ideas, leaving it up to the consumer to determine what they want to believe.

I believe in the opportunity that social media platforms provide to engage users with different ideologies in healthy debates. Social media has a unique capability to foster a true marketplace of ideas, from which users can decide what they want to engage with. But when a platform as powerful and influential as Twitter decides to use a free-for-all approach to their content, the consequences can be disastrous and dangerous to vulnerable and easily-influenced groups.

As for Elon’s approach to managing Twitter, he is not exactly the ‘free-speech absolutist’ he boasts himself to be. It seems clear that Elon is in support of protecting free speech, so long as it serves his interests. Most recently, Musk is facing criticism for complying with the Modi government’s request to stop Twitter users from sharing a new BBC documentary that criticizes Modi’s involvement in the 2002 Gujarat Riots.

Restoring banned extremist accounts also shows potential for financial gains for Twitter. The Washington Post, along with the Center for Countering Digital Hate, have noted the potential for these reinstated accounts to generate billions of views and consequently, a revenue of millions of US dollars in ad sales. With Twitter currently facing a financial crisis, there is a lot more to Elon Musk’s supposed commitment to free speech than he cares to admit.

In the next part of this series, I will explore the relative power of users to enact change within platforms. As consumers of content, and essentially the integrity of social media platforms, do we have the power to make demands of platform leaders? Or are owners of media companies, like Musk, Zuckerberg, and Murdoch, the ultimate dictators of the ways in which we consume media? What is the power dynamic between those who keep the platform afloat through engagement, and those who maintain the platform to keep us engaged?

Image Source: Amanda Northrop/Vox