“Free Speech” Isn’t a Panacea
Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter was accepted by the board on Monday, April 20th, 2022. There was immediate response by both Musk fans and the right that this is a great thing, because it will restore “free speech” to Twitter. Any suggestion that the sort of “free speech” they envision can have highly undesirable consequences is met with howls of “libs hate free speech” or other accusations of fascism. Similarly, warnings that unfettered free speech results in dangerous misinformation spreading are derided with the belief that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and the libertarian belief that in the marketplace of ideas, the best will always win out.
All of this is complete nonsense, and there are innumerable historical and modern examples of why social media platforms with nearly unlimited freedom of speech produce horrors. The Supreme Court decided free speech isn’t absolute long ago when Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted that you can’t shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, for seemingly obvious reasons.
First, freedom of speech has been the cause of untold death and suffering when it is used to disseminate hate or spread disinformation. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was a fabricated anti-Semitic text that purported to expose a global baby-murdering Jewish plot bent on world domination. “Mein Kampf” was Hitler’s autobiography, which blamed Germany’s post WWI woes on a global Jewish conspiracy. Both were readily available in the Weimar Republic. They were key contributors to the fall of German democracy, the rise of the Third Reich, and the Holocaust itself.
In modern times, lack of moderation on social media sites have repeatedly contributed to mass murder. The Christchurch shooter killed 51 Muslims at two mosques after being radicalized on YouTube, 4Chan, and 8Chan. The shooter who killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh had been radicalized on the social media site Gab, which advertised itself as a the “free speech” alternative to Twitter. Dylann Roof killed 9 people at the historically Black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 after he self-radicalized online. Investigations revealed that Google searches steered him further and further into extremist propaganda and hate.
The carnage caused by misinformation spread by social media goes far beyond massacres by racists, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes. Over one million Americans have died of COVID, and at least 25% of those deaths were preventable if people had gotten vaccinated. Many others could have been prevented if people had worn masks, socially distanced, believed the disease was real, or otherwise behaved in a rational manner.
Instead, conservative thought leaders (and I use the term “thought” very loosely here) on social media fed them an unending stream of propaganda, half-truths, lies, and misinformation on mostly unmoderated social media. They were told it was a hoax. Or COVID is no worse than the flu. Then hydroxychloroquine was the miracle cure. Then it was Ivermectin. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories became a staple of the right. The social media site Facebook was the worst source of lethal misinformation about the virus, and an independent study concluded that the website’s lax or non-existent efforts to quash misinformation were to blame.
The consequences of giving free rein to conservatives pushing misinformation to their followers in social media echo chambers can be clearly seen in the mortality statistics comparing deaths in counties that went to Trump or Biden. Since the vaccine became universally available in May 2021, death rates from COVID have run 2.73 times higher in counties that went for Trump than those which went for Biden.
The argument that the free market of ideas will win out, or that truth will inevitably win out over demonstrably false narratives is essentially a libertarian fairy tale, completely ungrounded in observable reality. The bugnuts crazy QAnon conspiracy theory that “The government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation” is believed by a quarter of all Republicans. Similarly, 71% of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump by nefarious means, despite the fact that no credible evidence exists for such a claim. The power of confirmation bias is incredibly strong, and most social media companies cash in on this with algorithms showing consumers increasingly outlandish material that already fits their world views.
As far as the free market goes, people forget that the usual result of completely unregulated markets are monopolies, and ideas within social media are no different. “Free Speech” competitors to Twitter such as Gab, Parler, and GETTR (which exert little to no moderation) are uniformly conservative monocultures full of the worst kinds of misinformation and hate outside of 4Chan and Kiwifarms. Parler’s CEO has begged liberals to join the site, and even offered $20,000 to do so, without any success.
These monocultures harass and badger dissenting views out of the space, often through doxxing or intimidation. Books have been written about how hostile unregulated spaces are for women on social media, including the new, “How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back” by Nina Jankowicz. LGBT people are now inundated, even on Twitter, with accusations of being “groomers” and pedophiles, which is the sort of language associated with stochastic political violence and even (at worst) genocide.
Nor is completely unfettered social media free speech good for democracy as a whole. Gab and Parler were both implicated as platforms used to organize the January 6th insurrection, which was a literal attempt to end democracy, and usher in a regime that would crush dissenting voices on social media. Not only were crypto-racists like Tucker Carlson excited by Musk’s move to buy Twitter, far-right politican Marjorie Taylor-Greene and neo-fascist Nick Fuentes were ecstatic. Anti-trans campaigners promised to go on a spree of deadnaming and misgendering transgender people to demonstrate “free speech” means insulting and harassing minorities. The implication is clear: they expect that “free speech” will mean that their messaging comes to dominate the site the way it does on Parler, Gab, GETTR, and others with little-to-no moderation.
Musk has claimed that he isn’t opposed to moderation, he just wants every kind of speech that’s legal to be allowed on Twitter. This opens another can of worms, however. In the US, any sort of speech that isn’t a direct call for imminent violence is legal. This is based on the 1968 Supreme Court case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, which found that when a Klansman at a rally called for “revengeance [sic]” against “n*****s“ and “Jews” it was protected free speech because the danger of violence wasn’t “imminent”. Thus, Twitter as ruloed over by Musk would allow such speech. And therein lies the problem.
Twitters competitors take the same (general) approach to moderation and free speech, but this is insufficient for Amazon, Google and Apple, who will not host these apps as a result of their lack of moderation. Additionally, free speech laws in the US are far less restrictive than European ones, meaning that if Twitter applied US free speech laws as a basis for moderation, it would likely be blocked from most of the European market (except Hungary). Given how leveraged Musk’s purchase of Twitter is, losing access to Amazon, Google, Apple, and the entirety of the European market would probably result in a default on the loan, which require a billion dollars in interest every year to be paid.
All of this should serve as a warning to Elon Musk. What makes Twitter a (relatively) robust social media platform is the diversity of voices, which are only possible because of moderating policies that are (somewhat) more robust than other platforms. There is every reason to believe that this will disappear if they decide to make it a “free speech” haven like Parler, GETTR, or Gab. Harassment will flourish, and misinformation will force any discussion into fighting a Gish Gallop of lies and conspiracies.
Without moderation on Twitter, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and the entire witch’s brew of right-wing hate will quickly take over and turn it into a Superfund site just like its competitors. Nothing decent can long endure in such an environment, and most people who aren’t these things will leave, hollowing out the site and ruining the investment. Given the terms of the loans to Musk and Twitter’s historic earnings, any loss of revenue could be catastrophic.
A word to the wise is usually sufficient: if Musk pursues a “free speech” agenda at Twitter, the results will be lethal to the platform, and he will find that he has killed the goose that laid the golden egg.