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Elon Musk's free-speech Twitter dream: We've seen this before

A lot of people with long internet memories rolled their eyes Thursday at Elon Musk's announcement that he wants to make Twitter a free-speech haven, because they have seen the movie and know how it ends.

The big picture: In the past, online free-speech havens have either been forced to reverse course and add rules — or they've turned into free-fire zones enjoyed chiefly by extremists and trolls.


Driving the news: After announcing a hostile takeover bid for Twitter, Musk took the stage at TED in Vancouver Thursday and described his vision for it.

  • Twitter, he argues, should enforce local laws and then let people say anything they want.
  •  "Is someone you don't like allowed to say something you don't like? If that is the case, then we have free speech."

Yes, but: Virtually every major online platform and service today started with a similar idea. They gradually accreted more rules over time because human beings do crazy, unpredictable things, and then masses of others object to what they're doing.

Things like:

  • Organizing large groups of users to harass others because of who they are or what they've said.
  • Spreading misinformation that causes active harm.
  • Flooding conversations with marketing spam.
  • Posting violent or explicit images that virtually no one wants to see.
  • Or just saying hateful, hurtful things that most of us would rather not hear.

Faced with such behavior, most platforms evolve rules according to the preferences of their owners and their communities.

  • The minority of online spaces that have chosen the "anything goes" route — the best-known examples are 4chan and its successors — nearly all turned ugly fast and stayed that way.
  • In the name of free speech, they become environments where the vast majority of people won't say anything at all.

The conservative discussion spaces that have multiplied recently, offering alternatives to Twitter after it banned former President Trump, talk up free speech. But most have their own rulebooks that go well beyond "don't break the law."

As for Twitter itself, it once proudly declared that it represented "the free speech wing of the free speech party."

  • Its rules have remained relatively more lax than those of many competing platforms.
  • And large numbers of users already regularly complain, "Why is Twitter full of people I don't like saying things I don't like?"

Between the lines: Musk's dream is that you can somehow avoid the mess that modern-day platform content moderation has become by following some common-sense rules and erring on the side of freedom when the calls get tough.

  • But at the scale of a global platform like Twitter, users will always be throwing out edge cases, novelties and unpredictable challenges. "Common sense" can never keep up.

Our thought bubble: Decades of internet experience show that there is a kind of Gresham's law to online posting: In digital environments, bad speech tends to drive out good.

  • You can pick from many different proven counter-strategies. Pretending the problem doesn't exist isn't one of them.

The bottom line: In a Thursday tweet, Samidh Chakrabarti, who used to head civic engagement at Facebook, wrote: "Effective moderation is not inherently in conflict with free speech. It is required for people to feel free to speak."

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