The ‘Twitter Files’ Show It’s Time to Reimagine Free Speech Online

Twitter owner Elon Musk and his Twitter profile. (Photo by Muhammed Selim Korkutata / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.)

A few years ago I was invited to an off-the-record meeting with senior executives at a major social media company. The topic was free speech. I’d just written a piece for the New York Times called “A better way to ban Alex Jones.” My position was simple: If social media companies want to create a true marketplace of ideas, they should look to the First Amendment to guide their policies. 

This position wasn’t adopted on a whim, but because I’d spent decades watching powerful private institutions struggle—and fail—to create free speech regulations that purported to permit open debate at the same time that they suppressed allegedly hateful or harmful speech. As I told the tech executives, “You’re trying to recreate the college speech code, except online, and it’s not going to work.” 

I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since Elon Musk took over Twitter, and particularly since Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss last week began releasing selected internal Twitter files at Musk’s behest. These files detail, among other things, Twitter’s decisions to block access to a New York Post story about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop ahead of the 2020 election, Twitter’s decision to eject Donald Trump from the platform, and the ways in which Twitter restricted the reach of tweets from a number of large right-wing Twitter accounts. 

The picture that emerges is of a company that simply could not create and maintain clear, coherent, and consistent standards to restrict or manage allegedly harmful speech on its platform. Moreover, it’s plain that Twitter’s moderation czars existed within an ideological monoculture that made them far more tolerant toward the excesses of their own allies. 

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