How to Fix Twitter.
Tue Apr 26 2022
I originally hadn't planned on talking about censorship or free speech anytime soon but it seems that fate (aka Twitter) has made it inevitable. Based on the recent events on Twitter, I think it's important that we all understand the definition of free speech.
If you haven't heard, Tesla CEO and entrepreneur Elon Musk successfully purchased Twitter yesterday after a discussion and bid going back as far as early April when he began to buy market shares.
What interests me about this business venture is not really the transaction itself. Instead, I'm deeply invested in his rationale behind this change in ownership. The primary reason Elon Musk bid to purchase Twitter (among many various reasons) is to properly enforce the freedom of speech on its platform:
"Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," said Mr. Musk.
Vital to the future of humanity? That's... debatable. Hey, maybe we can argue about this on Twitter.
"I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential - I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it."
@elonmusk at 7:43 PM on Apr 25, 2022
In order for me to properly discuss free speech, we need to understand the underlying principles of free speech and what "free speech" means. Free speech is the right to express any opinion in public without restraint or censorship. Likewise, censorship is the act of suppressing or erasing information from the view of a target audience. The key here is that censorship is the antithesis of free speech by direct contradiction of definitiom: they cannot coexist.
After the announcement was made that Twitter accepted Elon's bid, I thought to myself, "for better or worse, the old Twitter is gone." If Elon truly cares about free speech, Twitter might forever be changed in the coming year. With that, I want to discuss two important questions:
- Why is Twitter not a free speech platform?
- How can Twitter be fixed?
1. Why is Twitter not a free speech platform? ¶
As it stands today, Twitter is not a free speech platform.
I need to stress this to everyone who uses Twitter right now: Twitter is not a free speech platform.
I'll repeat it once more for emphasis: Twitter is not a free speech platform.
The reason Twitter is not a free speech platform is that it doesn't provide users the right to express any opinion without censorship. Censorship still exists on Twitter. These censorships come in the form of shadowbans, deleted tweets, banned accounts, and others for the sake of "safety".
Here are a few trivial examples: if I were to tweet about how much I hate Twitter, or tweet about "libtards" or "neofacists", I'm fairly confident that my tweets would be taken down for review. Twitter specifies a large list of content categories that may get erased or deleted in their TOS (Terms of Service), including:
- child sexual exploitation
- hate speech
- non-consensual nudity
- promotion of encouragement of suicide or self-harm
- perpetrators of terrorist attacks
Twitter Rules and Policies
Why is this bad? Banning hate speech is a good thing, right?
This is a bad resolution to free speech because these terms are entirely based around Twitter's vague definition of "safety". It's important to note that Twitter is run by humans. This means that specific humans control this definition of "safety". The only reason most of us are "ok" with Twitter's TOS is because our definitions generally align with the humans in control of Twitter. But what happens when that changes?
Imagine if Twitter added this rule to their TOS: "homosexuality is not allowed on this platform". Alternatively, imagine if I was banned from Twitter because "Twitter does not accept Asians". Again, what if Twitter implemented the policy "Liberals are not allowed on this platform". Would that change your opinion of Twitter's TOS?
Bias is human nature. We are all inherently biased by definition. Our opinions of "safety" will always differ, and that's natural. It becomes problematic when a personal definition is applied to everyone. This is censorship by definition, and it is a contradiction to free speech.
Censorship hurts all parties involved regardless of intent. Here are a few real examples of censorship backfiring:
- The "flat-Earth" theory is a false theory that the Earth is actually not round but flat. In order to prevent the spread of misinformation, Google decided to censor results relating to "flat Earth" to contain the idea. Instead, flat-Earth enthusiasts were able to convince even more people to believe in the flat-Earth theory because they made the argument that the government was working with Google to hide the truth from its citizens: "Why are you trying to hide this information if it is false?"
- Youtube deletes videos if they contain information on how to view Youtube content without ads (for example, using uBlock Origin, AdBlock Plus, or command line programs such as Youtube-dl or yt-dlp). Because these videos were getting taken down from the channels of prominent creators, more people became aware of the videos being taken down and thus learned how to get around Youtube ads.
- Most major tech companies (such as Google, Apple, and Netflix) are blocking the use of their products in Russia right now to support Ukraine and criticize Russia for its declaration of war against Ukraine. Because of this, the majority of innocent Russians who have no participation in the war effort have learned how to illegally view the content generated by these companies. Once the censorship ban is lifted, they probably won't switch back because it's free to pirate content.
2. How can Twitter be fixed? ¶
If Twitter's TOS inherently promotes objective censorship, should we remove all terms and allow hate speech, child pornography, and racism to dominate the platform?
Of course not. Here are my ideas for an idealistic Twitter. All of these opinions are my own and should not be taken as facts:
Guiding principles ¶
First, we need some basis or threshold of rules which govern all users involved on the platform. We need an underlying set of ethical principles by which all of us abide by or the platform will degrade in a downward spiral.
We already have a list of ethical principles we abide by - it's called the law.
Illegal content should always be banned on Twitter - child pornography, racism, killing, and others. In addition to illegal content, direct acts of violence or incitations to violence should be banned (for example, asking someone to "kill themselves" or "kill another person").
But what about controversial topics or misinformation?
Public Opinion and Misinformation ¶
I acknowledge that it would be counterproductive for misleading information to dominate Twitter.
For example, there are scenarios where a community or cult could influence public opinion. Imagine that a flat-Earth enthusiast tweets, "NASA confirms that the Earth is flat!", then incites all flat-Earth followers to like and retweet that tweet. How can we prevent the spread of misinformation?
I believe Twitter should implement a voting system similar to Reddit's upvote and downvote feature. If a Tweet is massively downvoted, a Twitter user should understand that the opinion was not well received with a majority of users and be able to make their own decision on the validity of its claim. If the ratio of downvotes to upvotes on content is so great that the amount of downvotes is twice, thrice, or even four times as large as the amount of upvotes, that content can be hidden from view (or even potentially deleted).
Odysee is a real working example of this system. Odysee is a Youtube alternative that, unlike Youtube, truly embodies free speech. Comments and videos are hidden if the number of dislikes outweight the likes by around 8:1.
Personalized Filtering ¶
What about content I disagree with? How can I block certain opinions from appearing on my feed?
A user should have the ability to filter what content is displayed to them via their own parameters instead of Twitter filtering content for them. This could be implemented in the form of checkboxes, tags, or even regex expressions:
Alternative 1: [X] I don't want to see nudity
Alternative 2: Block: (democrat) (guns) (nudity)
Alternative 3: Block: /(democrat|guns|nudity)/
Twitter can add to their TOS that each post or photo must be appropriately tagged or it will be deleted. In this solution, every user can personalize the content they want to see without Twitter choosing for them what they want to see.
Skepticism and Acceptance ¶
It doesn't matter how much Twitter warns new users about their policies, or how explicitly they state these new rules in their TOS if no one pays attention to them. As a society, we need to be more aware of different kinds of content and more accepting of opinions other than our own. We need to actually read terms when they're given, or understand the conditions of a contract before we accept it. If we aim to make a completely free platform, we need to educate ourselves and others about it. If you're a parent, talk to your kid about the TOS and even show them how to filter content they don't want to see. If you disagree with someone's opinion, try filtering or blocking their content before complaining to Twitter about it. If you tend to post aggressive or offensive content,consider who your target audience is and why you want to voice this opinion publicly. We all need to be a bit more skeptical of the content we consume and consider how we react to opposing ideas.
Final Thoughts ¶
With Twitter's new change in ownership, I am simultaneously optimistic and afraid of the future of Twitter. I sincerely hope that Elon Musk truly does promote free speech on Twitter. In an ideal world, we can all share our voices and opinions without fear of censorship. We need to stop gatekeeping ideas and voices for the sake of "safety". Whether this change on Twitter will actually happen or not has yet to be seen.
Edit (2022-04-28): Here's a great video where Elon discusses his plans for the future of Twitter: