Has Donald trumped Twitter?
The flamboyant and outspoken new owner of Twitter has made it clear he believes that it was a mistake to ban the former US President from the social media platform.
The news that Elon Musk has restored Donald Trump’s Twitter account, following an online poll conducted on the social media platform, has provoked typically polarised reactions. On the one hand, there is despair and on the other, elation. But beyond these immediate reactions, which are largely of a political and ideological nature, the real issues are those that deal with such things as free speech, hate speech, censorship, and cancel culture.
The flamboyant and outspoken new owner of Twitter has made it clear he believes that it was a mistake to ban the former US President from the social media platform. He believes that Twitter has been selective about which account is suspended, who it chooses to cancel, and what opinions it seeks to flag.
While there is some truth in this, the larger question is whether social media platforms should regulate the content published on it. In the early days, it was all right to claim that they were just platforms, hosts for content they do not publish and are not responsible for. But this position of convenient distance is no longer acceptable to regulators and lawmakers in different parts of the world, forcing Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media outlets to police their content.
But policing is essentially a human activity, even if much of it is conducted by programmes. And inevitably, this will lead to charges of bias. While it is possible to identify with some degree of accuracy, or at the very least with some measure of reasonableness, what constitutes ‘incitement to violence’, ‘defamation’, ‘threats to public disorder’ and so on, it is difficult to define exactly what constitutes offensive or hateful speech. The debate on what social media platforms should or should not allow essentially revolves around regulating hate and offence — notoriously subjective notions that have been impossible to codify.
Some of those who argue for less regulation and intervention are influenced by the traditional liberal idea, put forward by no less than John Stuart Mill, that proscribing any form of speech that does not cause physical harm is undesirable. And that repressing offensive speech will only see it emerge in other forms that are more shadowy and difficult to control. This line of reasoning would lead to the conclusion that Trump unleashed (and we know he has said some awful things on social media) is better than Trump repressed (which would result in these ideas reappearing in other ways or other platforms). T
he big question of course is whether Elon Musk, no friend of the liberal left, is thinking about these larger issues at all. If his goal is to merely restore those who have been cancelled by what he thinks is a left-wing ecosystem, then it is very limited. If it tilts Twitter rightwards and creates another intolerant ecosystem, then his goal is flawed and dangerous.