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The Unhinged Debate Over Twitter and ‘Free Speech’

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Twitter

Twitter has always loved to talk about itself. But in the weeks since a luridly unwell billionaire purchased the platform, gutted its staff, published its internal communications, littered his immaculately unfunny posts across everyone’s feeds, capriciously suspended a bunch of journalists who may or may not have shared publicly available information about his plane, and then asked the platform’s users to decide if he keeps his job, Twitter users have barely discussed anything else. (And by “Twitter users,” I mean my solipsistic community of amateur and professional news junkies.)

One prominent strand in this discourse has concerned the relationship between social-media moderation and civil liberties. Specifically, people have debated whether Twitter’s attempts to enhance “safety” and the site’s user experience by banning or limiting the visibility of certain accounts constitutes a threat to freedom of speech. Although some Twitter users argue, “lol wut,” others counter, “uh, obvi???”

The first point of view goes roughly like this: Individuals should have the right to express their views without fear of government coercion. But they also have the right to form media enterprises that host some forms of speech but not others. Twitter therefore should not be obligated to facilitate speech that its owners and managers object to, and any effort to coerce the platform into doing otherwise would itself constitute a violation of freedom of speech. If individuals object to how Twitter goes about moderating discourse, they can simply post their thoughts on another platform.

Others contend that this view willfully ignores the structural power of dominant platforms. Social media has an innate tendency toward centralization because of network effects: The more people join one specific site, the more valuable it is to have a presence there. Given the outsize influence Twitter and Facebook exert over our democratic life, their approach to moderating discourse is a matter of public concern. Giving a tiny number of tech billionaires and their patrons veto power over which ideas can and cannot be expressed on major social-media platforms — and/or the power to decide which ideas are actively promoted or suppressed — undermines the spirit of the First Amendment.

Personally, I think the first perspective is a bit glib. Twitter and Facebook aren’t entirely invulnerable to competition. But they’re plainly insulated from it by the power of network effects and sunk costs. This reality is reflected in the reluctance of liberal journalists to quit Twitter despite its new owner’s open contempt for them and amplification of far-right conspiracy theories. These might be private companies, but they are hard to displace. And their democratically unaccountable leaders have tremendous power to shape public discourse. How they choose to exercise that power is a determinant of precisely how free and open our civic discourse is.

That said, many civil-libertarian critiques of big tech are heavy on hyperbole and light on perspective.

Some form of social-media moderation is both necessary and inevitable. There are genuine tensions between free speech and public safety. The costs of imprisoning people for advocating the genocide of minority groups might outweigh the benefits. But it doesn’t follow that the same is true of merely denying would-be genocidaires a voice on large social-media platforms.

Meanwhile, myriad other forms of speech — from spam to credible threats of violence to racist or misogynistic abuse — render social-media platforms less enjoyable for users and less palatable to advertisers. Any dominant social-media company will therefore restrict such speech in deference to its own business interests. And any theoretical state-run social-media company that honored a policy of free-speech absolutism would likely lose market share to private platforms that prioritized user experience over the rights of neo-Nazis, exhibitionists, and crypto spammers.

So it makes sense to have different standards for the forms of speech that are immune from government coercion and for those that are immune from social-media suppression.

People will naturally disagree about precisely what those standards should be. I think the ambit for acceptable social-media discourse should be wide. Twitter and Facebook should not seek to settle live political debates by systematically suppressing a given point of view (so long as that POV is expressed in non-abusive terms). And yet, contrary to the rhetoric of civil-libertarian polemicists like Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi, there isn’t much evidence this has actually occurred.

To be sure, Twitter has sometimes enforced its terms of service in a capricious and ad hoc manner. This was true before Elon Musk’s takeover of the company, and has become more patently so since. Under Musk’s leadership, Twitter appears to be suspending journalists for no greater offense than taking an adversarial posture toward one of the world’s richest men. Which is alarming. To this point, however, Twitter’s CEO has scarcely succeeded in suppressing critical speech about Elon Musk from his platform; my own feed currently features little else, as even some of the billionaire’s ideological sympathizers have come to protest his suspension spree. And Musk has reversed course on multiple censorious policies in the face of such dissent. (As of this writing, it is unclear whether he will follow through on his promise to forfeit management of Twitter in deference to popular demand.)

In any case, Twitter’s loudest civil-libertarian critics have been less outraged by Musk’s thin skin and heavy hand than by the purported tyranny of his “woke” predecessors. And their complaints have some factual basis. The Twitter Files” have produced evidence that political biases may have influenced the site’s content-moderation policies in the pre-Musk era. For example, it looks as if the company chose to avoid actively promoting the tweets of Stanford professor Jay Bhattacharya merely because he argued against COVID lockdown policies (albeit, initially, on the basis of the catastrophically wrong prediction that COVID would prove “one-tenth” as deadly as the flu).

That is a concerning precedent. But it was also an awfully light-handed intervention in the site’s discourse. Bhattacharya did not lose his access to Twitter’s platform; to the contrary, the social-media site gave him a perch from which he could disseminate heterodox views on public-health policy to hundreds of thousands of followers.

And dissident perspectives like Bhattacharya’s were hardly difficult to find on Twitter throughout the pandemic. Indeed, during that period, many critics of school closures and vaccine mandates gained massive Twitter followings. Meanwhile, a recent analysis of 4 million tweets posted between January 2020 and January 2021 found that positive sentiments about the COVID vaccines were only slightly more prevalent on Twitter than negative ones. Given that such vaccines are a life-saving medical technology, the fact that negative sentiments about them were nearly as commonplace as positive ones cuts against the notion that Twitter systematically suppressed dissent against public-health orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, the decision to avoid actively promoting Bhattacharya’s tweets was among the most damning instances of politically biased content moderation (during the pre-Musk era) that the journalist Bari Weiss could find despite having nearly unlimited access to Twitter’s internal documents. Weiss also revealed that Twitter had chosen to avoid amplifying the tweets of the conservative pundit Charlie Kirk and to prevent the tweets of right-wing talk-show host Dan Bongino from appearing in searches. It is unclear what precipitated these actions. What is clear, however, is that neither policy denied Kirk or Bongino the right to social-media clout, let alone that of freedom of speech. Whatever marginal restrictions it placed on the two commentators’ pronouncements, Twitter nevertheless provided them with a collective audience of more than 4 million followers.

This is not to say that it’s illegitimate for anyone with a large Twitter following to object to having their tweets’ visibility secretly limited, nor that it is frivolous to worry about how platforms like Twitter could systematically manipulate public discourse through such mechanisms, especially considering the audacity of its present ownership. Still, a social-media platform tendentiously choosing to avoid amplifying a popular account — or even blocking access to a single news article for 24 hours — cannot reasonably be described as salvos in “a war over whether the internet will be free, over whether dissent will be allowed, over whether we will live in the closed propaganda system our elites claim The Bad Countries™ impose,” as Greenwald has argued.

Ironically, in their catastrophism, self-styled free speech absolutists like Greenwald emulate the pathologies of the censorious moralists they despise. To describe the debate over social-media companies’ content moderation decisions as a war over “whether dissent will be allowed” is every bit as histrionic as, say, equating advocacy for conservative policies with literal violence.

Sorely lacking from the Greenwaldian point of view is any sense of history or proportion. Taibbi recently scoffed at liberals who (allegedly) discovered a fear of “wealthy individuals controlling speech” only after Musk decided to buy Twitter. After all, the fact that rich people control the major organs of discourse has been “the absolute reality in America for a while.” Taibbi is surely right about that. But the reality he references long predates the rise of social media.

There is nothing new about large, democratically unaccountable corporations controlling the dominant platforms of news and debate. That’s been the way of things since the dawn of mass media. For much of the 20th century, the typical American got their information about politics and current events from one of three television networks. What’s most novel about our present media landscape is not the existence of an oligopoly of major platforms but rather how extraordinarily democratic access to those platforms has become.

Hyperbole about big tech’s war on “free speech” obscures this point. When your Twitter account is suspended, you do not lose your right to free speech, which you can still exercise in myriad other venues. What you lose is access to a platform where your words could potentially reach an audience of millions and plausibly appear before the most powerful politicians and journalists in the country. You lose (at least a portion of) your “freedom of reach.”

Put in these terms, it’s clear that platforms like Twitter have increased such freedom exponentially more than their content-moderation decisions have contracted it. The variety of people and perspectives with access to a mass audience — and/or influence over elite discourse — is orders of magnitude larger today than at any time in American history. The mid-century media oligopoly gave anti-Establishment gadflies like Greenwald little to no access to the airwaves. Today’s oligopoly, by contrast, enables him to put his every spontaneous thought before his nearly 2 million-person Twitter audience, which is disproportionately composed of America’s most powerful journalists and officials. Meanwhile, the degree of top-down influence that Twitter’s “safety” team exerted over public discourse is obviously infinitesimal next to that which the tiny community of network-television producers wielded in yesteryear.

This isn’t to say that iconoclasts today should stop complaining and appreciate how good they have it. Many of Twitter’s critics recognize that the platform has democratized public discourse and oppose heavy-handed content moderation in the name of safeguarding such gains. And that is a perfectly coherent and legitimate position. But it is distinct from the argument that Twitter and Facebook represent unprecedented threats to freedom of speech in the United States. If the ability to broadcast one’s thoughts on a dominant media platform at will is a constitutive element of the “right to free speech,” then the vast majority of Americans lacked that right until very recently, when big tech finally extended it to them.

In truth, social-media companies degrade our civic life less by restricting political debates than by poisoning them. Twitter has vastly expanded the number of topics and perspectives that get disputed before a mass audience. But it also encourages all disputants to embrace belligerent, sensationalist, and intellectually incurious modes of argument. Heat is more viral than light. Affirming the prejudices of your existing audience is a much better recipe for maximizing engagement than challenging those prejudices.

These dynamics have fostered some censorious tendencies among all political factions, including left-of-center Twitter users who occasionally seek to suppress legitimate lines of academic inquiry or political debate in the name of an expansive and arguably histrionic conception of public safety.

But the antidote to such excesses is a sense of proportion, not an equal and opposite hyperbole (let alone, a selective catastrophism that helps censorious billionaires style themselves as champions of free speech). Polemicists who point to Twitter’s de-amplification of Charlie Kirk’s tweets and declare that Americans are on the cusp of living in a “closed propaganda system” aren’t combating social media’s corrosive influence on democracy. They’re exacerbating it.

The Unhinged Debate Over Twitter and ‘Free Speech’