When Musk took over The-Platform-Formerly-Known-As-Twitter, he did so in part to ‘promote’ free speech and roll back certain moderation efforts. I think that’s horrible, but that does raise the question: where is the boundary between wanted and unwanted censorship?
Okay, before diving into arguments, let’s get some definitions clear.
First off, censorship. Here’s a definition:
Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information.– Wikipedia Censorship
That’s pretty clear, I think. Note that the definition says nothing about malicious intent.
Free speech is the opposite: the idea that people should be free to speak their mind. You could add ‘without fear of repercussions’ to that definition. However, that is where it gets interesting, more on that later. And the ‘speech’ part doesn’t really apply just to the spoken word anymore. No words on Twitter — sorry X — are spoken, but there is a lot of discussion about free speech on Twitter. The term has really come to encompass all forms of discourse.
Then there’s hate speech. Hate speech, like free speech, covers more than just speaking. It basically covers offensive discourse aimed at people with certain ‘inherent characteristics’. That’s what the UN says, anyway, and I mostly agree. I don’t really like the word ‘inherent’, because I wouldn’t call religion an ‘inherent characteristic’. I’d say ‘inherent characteristics or identity’.
Then there’s harassment. Hate speech targets a group. Harassment is when it targets Individuals. Remember how angry fans ran Kelly Marie Tran off Instagram by offensive posts on social media and elsewhere. All because they didn’t like her in the Last Jedi. That’s harassment.
Finally, we come to disinformation. We’ve probably all seen a lot of disinformation during the height of the Covid times. All social media were aflame with people deriding vaccines as lizard-grown mind-control shots. And let’s not forget Trump and his ilk purposefully undermining the US elections so Trump could turn the US into his personal dictatorship.
For a democracy to function, people should be able to speak their minds. It means people must be able to call out politicians that they feel are bad for the country. They must also be able to call the legality and illegality of things into question. You don’t want to be thrown in jail for advocating women’s rights, or an end to child labor.
So, when the Kremlin orchestrated an assassination attempt on Aleksej Navalny and then had him thrown in jail for probably the rest of his life, that was not good for Russia. It’s a form of censorship and oppression.
On the other hand, driving Kelly Marie Tran of Instagram was also horrible. They censored her. And in that case, shouldn’t somebody have censored all that hate speech and harassment aimed at her?
There’s a problem reconciling free speech with curbing hate speech, harassment, and disinformation. Censoring is neutral, but how you apply it is not. And where people and governments apply censorship is worthy of debate.
The hate side
You don’t want to allow hate speech, harassment, and disinformation for a number of reasons.
Letting hate speech run rampant normalizes it. Over the past decade, we’ve already seen the Overton Window shift everywhere in the western world. Nazis are openly walking the streets again, and many countries now have politicians calling for things that amount to mob killing and even genocide. Letting that go unanswered doesn’t stop it, it makes it worse.
Harassment is equally problematic. Online harassment is horrible for the victims and can and has led to suicide. And it can escalate horribly. Scifi author Patrick Tomlinson has had armed police officers at his door 42 times because of online abusers. You cannot let that go. And interestingly, part of the reason you cannot let it go is because of free speech. The targets have a right to speak their mind without fear of retribution.
Finally, disinformation is dangerous as well. For example, the vaccination rates in the US for Covid were low enough to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. And US elections have very little to do with actual democracy these days, and more with who can play the disinformation game best. That has destroyed confidence in government, which could lead to many horrible things. In other words, disinformation is dangerous and potentially deadly.
The free speech side
We’ve already covered the Navalny case, but Russia is not the world leader in censorship. I’d say that dubious honor falls to China. You’d think it would be easy to tell the difference between stopping disinformation and what China is doing.
However, it’s not quite so simple. If I were to post an article online saying ‘Vaccine X cannot be trusted’, well, at face value, that sounds exactly like disinformation. But what if I have a sound scientific reasoning and it turns out the article was right, and the vaccine was rubbish? It has happened.
The problem is that when you start to censor things, people won’t see them any more. Meaning that farfetched ideas might be suppressed, even when they’re right. It can lead to tunnel vision and oppression.
Functioning democracies have extra protections in place for journalists to avoid exactly this. However, what if hate groups start to run harassment and disinformation campaigns under the guise of journalism? It’s what Alex Jones did, and he was finally sued and convicted for it. Cancel culture is a form of censorship, which is one of the things about it that rankles some people.
In other words: figuring out if censorship is right or wrong is hard.
How to reconcile this?
I’ve written before about the problem of ‘freedom’. And we see the exact same problem play out in this situation. Free speech is about individual freedom, where censoring hate speech, harassment, and disinformation is where individual freedoms clash. And as I wrote then, equality is the important thing.
For hate speech, the freedom of people to speak their mind clashes with the freedom of other people to not be insulted for their inherent characteristic. Here especially, the difference between the privileged class and the minorities comes into play. The numerical differences in group size mean that white people get harassed far far far less than trans gender people. To get the amount of insulting down to equal levels for everybody, you need to reduce hate speech against minorities far more than hate speech against the privileged class. And that’s one reason that ‘white racism’ really isn’t a thing, if you actually look at the numbers.
For harassment, the freedom of people to speak their mind clashes with the freedom of the victims not to be harassed. That seems simple, but again, it gets complicated fast. Some people will claim JK Rowling is being harassed for ‘only asking questions’, while in fact Rowling is causing harassment campaigns against transgender people, literally killing them. Again, when you look at equality instead of freedom, things look different. When you’re JK Rowling, filthy rich, with an enormous online fan community, then people calling you out on being a transphobe is very different from a transgender person being harassed by that same enormous fan mob. ‘Cancelling’ Rowling has barely made a dent in her fortune or quality life, while her ‘campaigns ‘questions’ cause death and terror.
Finally, disinformation is even harder, but again, every person deserves equality. In this case, people all deserve equal access to high quality information, regardless of how good they are in critical thinking. That’s hard when people live in media bubbles that actually insulate themselves with walls of disinformation.
And this is why I don’t like to add ‘without fear of repercussions’ to the definition of free speech. Because that places freedom ahead of equality. Without protections, people can hate and harass without consequences too, if they are in a privileged position.
So, censorship and hate speech can clash, but it is quite possible to draw a line. And Twitter has been on the wrong side of that line for years.
It was quite possible to harass people on the platform, by — for example — flooding their timeline with hateful messages. Or mass reporting their account to trigger it to be locked. Or doxxing people. Or spreading misinformation. Or buy a gazillion bots.
This isn’t just a Twitter problem. It’s a general problem of social media. Like I wrote above, the line between censorship and free speech is not easy. Meaning, walking that line cannot be automated. Current social media cannot automate their moderation, and they don’t have the manpower to do it well enough manually — although I pity the people at Facebook and Twitter who have to try; what a horrible job.
For disinformation, there’s an extra problem, linked to how social media work. Social media don’t care what you see or read on the medium, as long as you are engaged. And content that pushes our buttons engage us more than other content. And so, outrageous disinformation has a distinct advantage over dry facts. The truth is often more boring and thus less engaging than a manufactured controversy.
Still, Twitter was slowly getting its head out of its ass when Musk came around.
Musk reinstated Trump’s account — the man who used Twitter to foment a coupe in the US. He allowed all kinds of hateful people back on the platform. And he turned the word ‘cis’ into a slur that gets you banned. And more.
Basically, Musk is changing Twitter in two ways. He’s rolling back a lot of moderation, and he’s censoring anything that doesn’t align with his (right-wing) world view.
As a result, Musk is fomenting a cesspit of hate, harassment, and disinformation. He might be oblivious enough to think this will actually make the world better. More likely, he’s a piece of shit who just wants remove all pushback to his privileges as a rich middle-aged cishet man. Because, as I wrote above, radical free speech favors the privileged.
Whatever his motiviation, I’d say it’s seriously time for an ‘X-it’.
Yes, there is a clash between censorship and preventing online hate, harassment, and disinformation. Finding the correct balance between the two is hard, but it needs to be done.
Simply crying ‘freedom’ and removing any and all censorship does not lead to a good outcome. It leads to more power for the privileged. On the other hand, censoring everything for the ‘good of the people’ leads to equally dismal results.
In short, we need to find a balance, and we need to re-evaluate that balance all the time. You can not automate that away, it’s a manual action, but a crucial one. And again, we need to limit freedom in favor of equality.