Insiders fear Musk will return platform to earlier troubles

The Arab Spring protests started in 2010, and Twitter became a megaphone for activists, reinforcing many employees’ belief that good speech would win out online.
Insiders fear Musk will return platform to earlier troubles
Elon MuskReuters

Elon Musk had a plan to buy Twitter and undo its content moderation policies. Just a day after reaching his $44 billion deal to buy the company, Musk was already at work on his agenda. He tweeted that past moderation decisions by a top Twitter lawyer were “obviously incredibly inappropriate.” Later, he shared a meme mocking the lawyer, sparking a torrent of attacks from other users.

Musk’s critique was a rough reminder of what faces employees who create and enforce Twitter’s complex content moderation policies. His vision for the company would take it right back to where it started, employees said, and force Twitter to relive the last decade.

Twitter executives who created the rules said they had once held views about online speech that were similar to Musk’s. They believed Twitter’s policies should be limited, mimicking local laws. But more than a decade of grappling with violence, harassment and election tampering changed their minds. Now, many executives at Twitter and other social media companies view their content moderation policies as essential safeguards to protect speech.

The question is whether Musk, too, will change his mind when confronted with the darkest corners of Twitter. Employees of Twitter and other social media companies said that Musk seemed to understand little about Twitter’s approach to content moderation and the problems that had led to its rules — or that he just didn’t care.

“He’s basically buying the position of being a rule-maker and a speech arbiter,” said David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who worked with the United Nations on speech issues.

In its early years as a small start-up, Twitter was governed by one philosophy: The tweets must flow. That meant Twitter did little to moderate conversations, as its founders believed that any reprehensible content would be countered or drowned out by other users.

“There’s a certain amount of idealistic zeal that you have: ‘If people just embrace it as a platform of self-expression, amazing things will happen,’” said Jason Goldman, who was on Twitter’s founding team and served on its board of directors. “That mission is valuable, but it blinds you to think certain bad things that happen are bugs rather than equally weighted uses of the platform.”

The Arab Spring protests started in 2010, and Twitter became a megaphone for activists, reinforcing many employees’ belief that good speech would win out online. But its power as a tool for harassment became clear after Gamergate, a mass harassment campaign that flooded women in the video game industry with death and rape threats, and Russian troll farm sowing discord about the presidential election in the US among others.

“If there are no rules against abuse and harassment, some people are at risk of being bullied into silence, and then you don’t get the benefit of their voice, their perspective, their free expression,” said Colin Crowell, Twitter’s former head of global public policy.— NYT

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