Twitter Is Now the Front Line in the War for Free Speech

This idea that there is no difference between real world violence and online speech is now conventional wisdom in the industry that seeks to preserve ‘online safety’ for social media.

AP/Gregory Bull

Since Elon Musk purchased Twitter and fired most of its senior executives, the industry of journalists, think tankers, and academics that tracks the spread of digital wrong-think is in a panic.

Last week, the New York Times and the Washington Post ran near-identical articles claiming that recent changes to content moderation policies at Twitter have led to sharp spikes in online hate speech, in particular antisemitism.

Already, a number of advertisers on Twitter’s platform have begun to leave, under pressure from groups like the Anti-Defamation League. Meanwhile, Mr. Musk says Apple has threatened that it might kick Twitter out of its app store.

That is the context in which the Twitter emails and other internal files were disclosed over the weekend by an independent journalist, Matt Taibbi. Mr. Musk has come under enormous market and public relations pressure to preserve Twitter’s old regime for regulating online speech. Mr. Taibbi’s articles are the first independent examination of how those old rules worked.

Mr. Taibbi’s first post, on Friday, delved into Twitter’s internal process for deciding to censor a New York Post scoop that reported on the existence of a laptop computer abandoned by Hunter Biden at a repair shop in Delaware.

The laptop included incriminating emails that showed how Hunter  Biden had traded on his father’s name to land contracts with businesses in China and other countries. The laptop also included embarrassing photos of Mr. Biden engaged in sexual acts and smoking crack cocaine.

So far, Mr. Taibbi’s reporting shows that no one at Twitter in October 2020 had any hard confirmation that the contents of the laptop were hacked. Yet the justification for censoring the New York Post story was Twitter’s policy regarding “hacked materials.”

Mr. Taibbi quotes an internal message from a Twitter deputy counsel, James Baker. He says, “we need more facts to assess whether the materials were hacked.” He adds, “it is reasonable for us to assume that they may have been and that caution is warranted.”

Mr. Baker’s name is familiar to anyone following the Russiagate fiasco. He was the FBI’s general counsel until 2018. He has been a consistent defender of that deceptive investigation since he left the bureau.

The FBI, according to Yoel Roth, the recently departed head of Twitter’s Trust and Safety team, was warning Twitter in the summer and fall of  2020 that Russia planned to release hacked materials ahead of the presidential election.  

Mr. Roth elaborated over the weekend on Kara Swisher’s podcast that the Russian hack of the Hillary Clinton campaign emails in 2016 had influenced how Twitter was approaching the potential for foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Nonetheless, Mr. Roth told Ms. Swisher that he still opposed a policy to bar the New York Post article from being shared on Twitter. Mr. Taibbi reported a message from Mr. Roth suggesting a strong warning be appended to the Post story when users opened it and that Twitter prevent it from “being amplified.”

One can fairly argue that as scandalous as the Hunter Biden laptop story was, it’s unlikely that it would have swayed the election. It’s also true that President Trump’s suggestion that the Twitter file reporting justifies suspending the Constitution is ridiculous and sinister.

That however misses the point. As Twitter and other social media companies acquiesced in recent years to the demands of activists and academics to moderate more and more online content, the company lost sight of its original mission to promote digital free speech.

Just consider what a Harvard professor, Juliette Kayyem, told the Washington Post last week regarding the increase of so-called hate speech on Twitter in recent weeks. She said, “The idea that there is a difference between online chatter and real-world harm is disabused by a decade of research.”

This idea — that there is no difference between real world violence and online speech — is now conventional wisdom in the industry that seeks to preserve “online safety” for social media networks.

Do these experts not realize that free speech requires one to distinguish between words and violence? Once that line is erased, then almost any speech can be censored in the name of safety.

Until the end of October, when Mr. Musk purchased Twitter, it looked like Mr. Roth and Ms. Kayyem would prevail in shaping the rules for our digital town square.

As Mr. Roth said on Ms. Swisher’s podcast, he does not regret banning the account for the satiric Babylon Bee after it awarded its “Man of the Year” award to the transgender assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Rachel Levine.

Mr. Roth explained that even though the Bee was engaging in satire about a government official, it nonetheless violated Twitter’s policy against the misgendering of trans individuals.

Mr. Musk is trying another approach. He has said that there will still be rules for what one can and cannot post on Twitter. Those rules, though, will focus on illegal speech, such as incitement to violence, as opposed to the myriad kinds of unsafe speech banned by Twitter in recent years.   

For now, I hope Mr. Musk follows through on that sensible promise. In the interim I await new installments of the Twitter Files to learn exactly how much speech was being moderated before Mr. Musk took over.

The New York Sun

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