April 27, 2022

The Challenges Ahead for Musk and Twitter

Next comes the heavy lifting of ensuring free speech while getting rid of the platform’s unwanted extras.

Now that the world’s richest man has purchased what National Review’s misanthropic Kevin Williamson calls “an embarrassing, grotesque, vicious, money-losing social-media company” — now that he’s paid 44-freaking-billion dollars for a snowflaky entity whose employees hate his guts and whose leadership lost $221 million last year — now the hard work begins.

The hard work, of course, is ensuring real free speech while remaking Twitter into what Musk has dubbed “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” Williamson doesn’t think Musk can do it, because, in his words, “mankind is a fallen creature.” He’s right about our fallenness — especially the fallenness of certain fanatics who live on Twitter — but he’s also unduly pessimistic, especially where it concerns a non-car guy who remade the car industry, and a non-space guy who remade the space industry. Think about it: The “progressive” board of a “progressive” social media company slammed the door in Musk’s face little more than a week ago. And now he owns them. So we suspect Musk won’t be calling Williamson for business advice, nor working overtime to secure his sanction.

“I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features,” said Musk, “making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”

Great. But how? It’s an ambitious vision, and it’ll be a heavy lift:

As columnist Christopher Bedford writes:

The first two are important steps: If successful, these changes will make the service far more usable, tame bot-driven mobs, and finally and permanently deflate the censors’ favorite “Russian bots” bogeyman (as well as future bot-boogeymen to come). Publicizing algorithms, however, is essential. Silicon Valley’s algorithms have achieved near-mythic status within the censorship regime, catching fact and fiction, journalists and politicians, Christians and activists, scientists and concerned parents alike in their nets.

As Bedford correctly notes, the resulting censorship “leans heavily toward viewpoints that dissent from the left-wing narrative,” but when those decisions to silence the opposition prove indefensible, Twitter’s leaders simply blame “the algorithm” — and then they skip off merrily in search of their next conservative victim. Algorithmic transparency puts an end to this.

Whom Musk picks to run the show will also be critical. He needs someone who shares his vision on free speech, and Twitter’s current CEO, hard-left Parag Agrawal, ain’t it. Nor is Agrawal’s more Musk-friendly predecessor, Jack Dorsey, who simply doesn’t have enough steel in his spine to stare down The Mob. “Personnel is policy,” as Ronald Reagan’s director of personnel, Scott Faulkner, once said. And now more than ever.

As for the rank and file, we saw somewhere that today’s threats of migration and mass resignation from Twitter are likely as hollow as that hardy perennial of moving to Canada now that [insert Republican] is president. Go ahead: Make our day. Besides, Joe Biden can teach coal miners to code, right?

Regardless, Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters houses approximately 2,500 employees, and that’s where the rubber hits the road. How many of them, would you guess, lean to the right? Same here. If Musk wants to truly unleash Twitter, he’ll have a far easier time doing so in a city other than San Francisco, and in a state other than California. Texas? Austin is certainly liberal, but it’s brimming with bright young tech talent and is a far cry from drug-addled, poop-patrolled San Francisco. Florida? We suspect Governor Ron DeSantis would be happy to find a suitable home for Musk and his team.

Content moderation will also be a challenge. After all, just because speech is free doesn’t mean all speech is acceptable — think spam, porn, racial slurs, and calls to violence, for example.

But, as Vivek Ramaswamy and Jed Rubenfeld write in The Wall Street Journal: “Racist and sexist speech expresses an opinion, however odious, and banning opinions is the essence of viewpoint discrimination. That’s why the U.S. Constitution doesn’t allow the government to ban hate speech.”

One way to curtail this is, as they suggest, through simple opt-in buttons: “Mr. Musk could keep in place all of Twitter’s offensive-speech protocols, but give every user the ability to opt in or out of them. If a user doesn’t want to see hate speech, there’s no reason he should have to. The same goes for constitutionally protected sexually explicit material. A more ambitious option would be to harness artificial intelligence and develop an individualized filtering mode.” Of course, this AI solution would tend to create online echo chambers, which aren’t conducive to a true digital marketplace.

For a clue as to how Musk might moderate Twitter’s content, he wrote last week, “A social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10% on left and right are equally unhappy.” This shows that the man is as much a pragmatist as he is an absolutist. He realizes that the latter necessitates the former.

It’ll be interesting to see how all this unfolds — and, hopefully, it unfolds favorably for freedom.

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