Reality Check: Twitter Actually Was Already Doing Most Of The Things Musk Claims He Wants The Company To Do (But Better)
from the with-a-very-narrow-exception dept
So there has been lots of talk about Elon Musk and his takeover of Twitter. I’ve written multiple things about how little he understands about free speech and how little he understands content moderation. I’ve also written (with giant caveats) about ways in which his takeover of Twitter might improve some things. Throughout this discussion, in the comments here, and on Twitter, a lot of people have accused me of interpreting Musk’s statements in bad faith. In particular, people get annoyed when I point out that the two biggest points he’s made — that (1) Twitter should allow all “legal” speech, and (2) getting rid of spambots is his number one priority — contradict each other, because spambots are protected speech. People like to argue that’s not true, but they’re wrong, and anyone arguing that expression by bots is not protected doesn’t understand the 1st Amendment at all.
Either way, I am always open to rethinking my position, and if people are claiming that I’m interpreting Musk in bad faith, I can try to revisit his statements in a more forgiving manner. Let’s, as the saying goes, take him figuratively, rather than literally.
But… here’s the thing. If you interpret Musk’s statements in the best possible light, it’s difficult to see how Twitter is not already doing pretty much everything he wants it to do. Now, I can already hear the angry keyboard mashing of people who are very, very sure that’s not true, and are very, very sure that Twitter is an evil company “censoring political views” and “manipulating elections” and whatever else the conspiracy theory of the day is. But it’s funny that the same people who insist that I’m not being fair to Musk, refuse to offer the same courtesy or willingness to understand why and how Twitter actually operates.
So, let’s look at Musk’s actual suggestions, phrased in the best possible light, and look at what Twitter has actually done and is doing… and again, you’ll realize that Twitter is (by far!) the social media service that has gone the farthest to make what he wants real, and in the few areas that he seems to think the company has fallen short, the reality is that it has had to balance difficult competing interests, and realized that its approach is the most likely to get to the larger goal of providing a platform for global conversation.
Musk has repeatedly said that he sees free speech on Twitter as an important part of democracy. So do many people at Twitter. They were the ones who framed themselves as the “free speech wing of the free speech party.” But as any actual expert in free speech will tell you, free speech does not mean that private websites should allow all free speech. And I know people — including Musk — will argue against this point, but it’s just fundamentally wrong. We’ve gone over this over and over again. The internet itself (which is not owned by any entity) is the modern public square, and anyone is free to set up shop on it. But that does not mean that they get to commandeer private property for their own screaming fits.
If it did, you would not have free speech, because you would (1) just get inundated with spam and garbage, and (2) only the loudest, most obnoxious voices would ever be heard. The team at Twitter actually understands the tradeoffs here, and while they don’t always get it “right” (in part because there is no “right”), Twitter’s team is so far above and beyond any other social media website, it’s just bizarre that the public narrative insists the opposite.
Twitter has long viewed its mission as enabling more free speech and more conversation in the world, and has taken steps to actually make that possible. Opening up the platform to people who violate the rules, abuse and harass others, and generally make a mess of things, does not aid free speech or “democracy.” You can disagree with where Twitter draws the lines (and clearly, Musk does), but Musk has shown little to no understanding of why and how the line drawing is done in the first place, and if he moves in the direction he claims, will quickly realize that Twitter’s lines are drawn much much much more permissively than nearly any other website (including, for what it’s worth, Trump’s Truth Social), and that there are actually clear reasons for why it drew the lines it did — and those lines are often to enable more ability for there to be communication and conversation on the platform.
Twitter has long allowed all sorts of dissenting viewpoints and arguments on its platform. Indeed, there are many activists who insist that the problem is that Twitter doesn’t do enough moderation. Instead, Twitter has put in place some pretty clear rules, and it tries to only take down accounts that really break those rules. It doesn’t always get that right. And it misses some accounts, and takes down others it shouldn’t. But on the whole, it’s way more permissive than most any other site that is much quicker to ban users.
Second, even as it contradicts his first point, Musk has claimed that he wants to get rid of spambots and scambots. This is a good goal. And, again, it’s also one that Twitter has been working on for ages. And it has really good, really smart people working on the issue (some of the best out there). And, in part because the company is so open and so permissive (again much more so than other platforms), this is an extraordinarily difficult problem to solve, especially at the scale of Twitter. People assume, falsely, that Twitter doesn’t care about spammers, but part of the issue is that if you want to have an “open” platform for “free speech,” that means that people will take advantage of that. Musk is going to find that Twitter already has some of the best people working on this issue — that is if they don’t rush out the door (or get pushed out by him).
Third, Musk has talked about redoing the verification system. He’s said that Twitter should “authenticate all real humans.” This appears to be (at least partly) part of his method for dealing with the bots and spam he’d like to eradicate. For years we’ve discussed the dangers of a “real names” policy, that requires people to post under their own names, including that studies have shown that the trolling often is worse under real names. It’s especially dangerous for marginalized people, and those who have stalkers, or are otherwise at risk.
But, some people respond, it’s unfair to assume he means a real names policy. Perhaps he just means that Twitter will keep a secret database of your verified details, and you can still be pseudonymous on the site. Except, as experts will tell you, that still is massively problematic, especially for marginalized groups, at-risk individuals, and those in countries with authoritarian regimes. Because now that database becomes a massive target. You get extremely questionable subpoenas, seeking to unmask users all the time. Or, you get the government demanding you cough up info on your users. Or you get hackers trying to get into the database. Or, you get authoritarian countries getting employees into these companies to seek out info on critics of the regime.
All of these things have happened with Twitter. And Twitter was in a position to push back. But it sure helped that in many of those cases Twitter didn’t actually have their “verification,” but much less information, like an IP address and an email.
Or, to take it another level, perhaps Musk really just means that Twitter should offer verification to those who want it. That’s not at all what he said, but it’s how some of his vocal supporters have interpreted this. Well, once again, Twitter has tried that. And it didn’t work. Back in 2016, Twitter opened up verification for everyone, and the company quickly realized it had a huge mess on its hands. First people gamed the system. Second, even though the program was only meant to just verify that the name on the account was the real person it was labeled as, people took it to be an “endorsement” by Twitter, which created a bunch of other headaches. Given that, Twitter paused the program.
It then spent years trying to figure out a way to open up verification to anyone without running into more problems. Indeed, Jack Dorsey made it clear that the plan has always been to “open verification to everyone.” But it turns out that, like dealing with spam and like dealing with content moderation, this is a much harder problem to solve at scale than most people think. It took Twitter almost four years to finally relaunch its verification program in a much more limited fashion, which they hoped would allow the company to test out the new process in a way that would avoid abuse.
But even in that limited fashion the program ran into all sorts of problems. It had to shut down the program a week after launching it, to sort out some of the issues. Then, it had to do so again 3 months later, after finding more problems with the program — specifically that fake accounts were able to game the verification process.
But, again, Twitter has been trying to do exactly what Musk’s fans insist he wants to do. And they’ve been doing so thoughtfully, and recognizing the challenges of actually doing it right, and realizing that it involves a lot of careful thought and tradeoffs.
Next, Musk said that Twitter DMs should have end-to-end encryption, and on this I totally agree. It should. And lots of others have been asking for this as well. Including… people within Twitter who have been working on it. But there are a lot of issues in making that actually work. It’s not something that you can just flip a switch on. There are some technical challenges… but also some social issues as well. All you have to do is look at how long it’s taken Facebook to do the same thing — in part because as soon as the company planned to do this, they were accused of not caring about child safety. Maybe, a privately owned Twitter, controlled by Musk just ignores all that, but there are real challenges here, and it’s not quite as easy as he seems to think. But, once again, it’s not an issue that’s never occurred to Twitter either.
Another recent Musk “idea” was that content moderation should be “politically neutral,” which he (incorrectly) claims “means upsetting the far right and far left equally.” For a guy who’s apparently so brilliant, you’d think he’d understand that there is no fundamental law that says (1) political viewpoints are distributed equally across a bell curve and (2) the differences between neutrality of inputs and neutrality of outputs. That is, every single study has shown that, if anything, Twitter’s content moderation practices greatly favor the right. It’s just that (right now), the right is much, much, much more prone to sharing misinformation. But if you have an unequal distribution of troublemakers, then a “neutral” policy will lead to unequal outcomes. Musk seems to want equal outcomes which literally would mean a non-neutral policy that gives much, much, much more leeway to troublemakers on the right. You can’t have equal outcomes with a neutral policy if the distribution is unequal.
Finally, the only other idea that Musk has publicly talked about is “open sourcing” the algorithm. At a first pass, this doesn’t make much sense, because it’s not like you can just put the code on Github and let everyone figure it out. It’s a lot more complicated than that. In order to release such code, you first have to make sure that it doesn’t reveal anything sensitive, or reveal any kind of vulnerabilities. The process for securing production code that was built in a closed source environment to make it open source… is not easy. Having dealt with multiple projects attempting to do that, it almost always fails.
In addition, if they were open sourcing the algorithm, the people it would benefit the most are the spammers and scammers — the very accounts Musk claims are his very first priority to stomp out. So once again, his stated plans contradict his other stated plans.
But… Twitter has actually again been making moves in this general direction all along anyway. Jack Dorsey, for years, has talked about why there should be “algorithmic choice” on Twitter, where others can build up their own algorithms, and users can pick and choose whose algorithm to use. That’s not the same as open sourcing it, but actually seems like it would be a hell of a lot closer to what Musk actually wants — a more open platform where people aren’t limited to just Twitter’s content moderation choices. And, as Dorsey has pointed out, Twitter is also the only platform that allows you to turn off the algorithm if you don’t want it.
So, as we walk down the list of each of the “ideas” that Musk has publicly talked about, taking them in the most generous light, it’s difficult to argue that Twitter isn’t (1) already doing most of it, but in a more thoughtful and useful manner, (2) much further along in trying to meet those goals than any other social media platform, and (3) already explored, tested, and rejected some of his ideas as unworkable.
Indeed, about the only actual practical point that Musk seems to disagree with Twitter about is a few specific content moderation decisions that he believes should have gone in a different direction. And this is, as always, the fundamental disconnect in any conversation about content moderation. Every individual — especially those with no experience doing any actual moderation — insists that they have the perfect way to do content moderation: just get rid of the content they don’t want and keep the content they do want.
But the reality is that it’s ridiculously more complicated than that, especially at scale. And no company has internalized that more than Twitter (though, I expect many of the people who understand this the best will not be around very long).
Now, I’m sure that Musk fans (and Techdirt haters, some of whom overlap), will quickly rush out the same tired talking points that have already been debunked. Studies have shown, repeatedly, that, no, Twitter does not engage in politically biased moderation. Indeed, the company had to put in place special safe space rules to protect prominent Republican accounts that violated its rules. Lots of people will point to individual examples of specific moderation choices that they personally don’t like, but refuse to engage on why or how they happened. We’ve already explained the whole “Biden Laptop” thing so it doesn’t help your case to bring it up again — not unless you’re able to explain why you’re not screaming about Twitter’s apparently anti-BLM bias for shutting down an account for leaking internal police files.
The simple fact is that content moderation at scale is impossible to do well, but Twitter actually does it better than most. That doesn’t mean you’ll agree with every decision. You won’t. People within the company don’t either. I don’t. I regularly call the company out for bad content moderation decisions. But I actually recognize that it’s not because of bias or a desire to be censorial. It’s because it’s impossible for everyone to agree on all of these decisions, and one thing the company absolutely needs to do is to try to craft policies that can be understood by a large content moderation team, around the globe, who can make relatively quick decisions at an astounding speed. And that leads to (1) a lot of scenarios that don’t neatly fit inside or outside of a policy, and (2) a lot of edge case judgment calls.
Indeed, so much of what people on the outside wrongly assume is “inconsistent” enforcement of policy is actually the exact opposite. A company like Twitter can’t keep changing policy on every decision. It needs to craft policy and stick with it for a while. So, something like the Biden laptop story comes along and someone points out that it seems pretty similar to the Blueleaks case, so if the company is being consistent, shouldn’t it block the NY Post’s account as well? And you can make an argument as to how it’s different, but there’s also a strong argument as to how it’s the same. And, so then you begin to realize that not blocking the NY Post in that scenario would actually be the “inconsistent” approach, since the “hacked materials” policy existed, and had been enforced against others before.
Now, some people like to claim that the Biden laptop didn’t involve “hacked” materials, but that’s great to be able to say in retrospect. At the time, it was extremely unclear. And, again, as described above, Twitter has to make these decisions without the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, they need to be made without the benefit of very much time to investigate at all.
These are all massive challenges, and even if you disagree with some of the decisions, it’s simply wrong to assume that the decisions are driven by bias. I’ve worked with people doing content moderation work at tons of different internet companies. And they do everything they can to avoid allowing bias to enter into their work. That doesn’t mean it never does, because of course, everyone is human. But on the whole, it’s incredible how much effort people put into being truly agnostic about political views, even ridiculous or abhorrent ones. And Twitter, pretty much above all others, is incredibly good at taking the politics out of its trust and safety efforts.
So, again, once Musk owns Twitter, he is free to do whatever he wants. But it truly is incredible to look over his stated goals, and to look at what Twitter has actually done and what it’s trying to do, and to realize that… Twitter already is basically the company Musk insists it needs to be. Only it’s been doing so in a more thoughtful, more methodical, more careful manner than he seems interested in. And that means we seem much more likely to lose the company that actually has done the most towards enabling free speech in support of democratic values. And that would be unfortunate.