Elon Musk should take a clear stand against proxy censorship

From the outside, Twitter’s content moderation decisions seem haphazard at best. From the inside, they look worse, particularly because government officials play an unseemly and arguably unconstitutional role in crafting these decisions.

Internal communications that Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter, is gradually revealing to a select few reporters show that the company’s former executives arbitrarily applied the vague rules of the platform and surreptitiously deleted content from disadvantaged accounts. The “Twitter Files” also confirm that the company had a warm relationship with federal agencies, allowing them to indirectly censor speech they deemed dangerous.

Musk, a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist“, tries to signal that things will be different under his ownership. He faces a daunting challenge as it attempts to implement more lenient moderation policies without dropping all content restrictions, lest Twitter become a “hellscape free for allwhich alienates users and advertisers.

Part of this mission should be relatively simple. Musk could clarify that neither government bureaucrats nor elected officials have to dictate what Twitter’s rules should be or how they should be enforced.

Musk took a significant step in that direction last month by canceling Twitter’s ban on “COVID-19 misinformation,” a nebulous category that ranged from false claims of verifiable fact to demonstrably or arguably true statements that were deemed “misleading” or contrary to government advice. This policy invites proxy censorshipgiving the Biden administration an excuse to enforce an ever-evolving “scientific consensus” by publicly and privately pressuring Twitter to crack down on speech that officials consider a threat to public health.

Twitter files show the company has also collaborated with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence to identify and suppress “election disinformation,” another ill-defined problem Category open to wide interpretation. Leaders enforcing this policy have regularly conferred with these agencies, and they have privately acknowledged that such comfort would be controversial if publicly acknowledged.

The reason for this reluctance should be obvious. It’s one thing for a platform to enforce its own content restrictions, even if it does so in a way widely seen as unfair, inconsistent, or politically biased. But when that platform takes inspiration from the government, private moderation decisions can easily become a cover for unconstitutional speech restrictions.

Because the government has the power to make life difficult for social media companies through punishments, regulations, litigation and laws, its “demands” always have an impact implied threat. So it’s no surprise that Twitter and other major platforms have been eager to queue.

Musk himself seems confused on the issues at stake here. He tends to to confuse “freedom of expression” without restriction of private and misleading content involved this twitter wide ban on “hateful conduct”, which he is still openly committed upon application, applies only to speech that falls within the judicially recognized exceptions to the First Amendment.

Musk’s confusion was evident last week, when Rep. Adam Schiff (D‒Calif.) said he was “demanding action” in response to an “unacceptable” increase in “hate speech” on Twitter since Musk took over the platform in late October. Musk replied by questioning the evidence this Schiff citedsaying “hate speech impressions are actually down 1/3 for Twitter now compared to before the acquisition.”

Instead of getting bogged down in a debate over whether Twitter was in fact invaded by fanatics under his watch, Musk should have asked why Schiff thinks he has the power to demand censorship of speech that offends him. The First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from “restricting free speech,” is pretty clear on this point.

Freelance journalist Glenn Greenwald to complain that “dictating to social media companies what they can and cannot do, how they should censor, what role Democratic politicians play in all of this, is just taken for granted.” Musk is in a good position to challenge that assumption, and he could start by telling Schiff to mind his own business.

© Copyright 2022 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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