Elon Musk Has Got Content Moderation All Figured Out: Delete The “Wrong” And “Bad” Content, But Leave The Rest (And Reinstate Trump)
from the i-can't-believe-we're-all-doing-this dept
Look, we’ve tried to explain over and over again that Elon Musk doesn’t understand free speech or content moderation. He also seems entirely clueless about the incredible lengths that Twitter has gone to in order to actually protect free speech online (including fighting in court over it) and what it has done to deal with the impossible complexities of running an online platform. Every time he opens his mouth on the subject, he seems to make things worse, or further demonstrate his ridiculous, embarrassing levels of ignorance on the topic — such as endorsing the EU’s approach to platform regulation (something that Twitter has been fighting back against, because of its negative impact on speech).
The latest is that Musk continued his trend of speaking nonsense at a Financial Times conference, where he said that he would reinstate Donald Trump’s account.
“I do think it was not correct to ban Donald Trump, I think that was a mistake, because it alienated a large part of the country, and did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice,” Mr. Musk said at a Financial Times conference on Tuesday.
If you’re into that sort of punishment, you can watch the whole thing here. I just warn you that it’s an hour and twenty minutes of your life that you will never, ever get back.
Now, there are plenty of principled reasons to argue for why Trump should be reinstated to the platform. And there are plenty of principled reasons to argue for why he should be kept off of it. When the ban first happened, I wrote a long piece analyzing the decision, noting that it’s not, in any way, an easy call, but there are reasons you can argue both sides.
Later in the talk, Musk basically clarifies his point, repeating something he’s said before, that he basically does not like permanent “bans” but does support other forms of moderation, including deleting content or making it “invisible.” And, again, there is an argument for that as well — in fact, Jack Dorsey has said he has agreed, though in slightly different framing, noting that getting to the point that the company felt Trump needed to be banned represented a failure for Twitter, and reiterating why Twitter should be an implementation of a social media protocol, rather than a centralized hub. And, also, similarly, Facebook’s own Oversight Board questioned the permanent nature of the ban on that platform, and Facebook responded by saying that the ban would be reviewed every two years (though, I’m realizing that two years passed earlier this year, and I don’t recall any commentary on that…).
So, again, there is some level of reasoning behind moving away from bans. But, Musk’s position again appears to be not based on any principled argument, or understanding of what actually happened, but just random thoughts firing through his head. He continues to (falsely) claim that Twitter’s moderation is biased in favor of “leftists” (evidence points in the other direction, but details, details…). The fact that he says the banning of Trump “alienated a large part of the country” leaves out the fact that Trump himself alienated a large part of the country, and returning him to Twitter would do the same. But, oddly, Musk doesn’t seem to care about alienating those people.
His other point, that it “did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice” is just… weird? No one ever argued that Twitter removed Trump to stop him from “having a voice.” Indeed, part of the argument many of us made that one reason why it’s not so bad that he was removed was because he still had the ability to speak out in lots of other places including (these days) on his own Twitter-wannabe. All the removal was doing was saying that Twitter did not want him directly using their site to cause more havoc.
Even more ridiculous though, is that Musk then went on to talk about, hell, let’s call it, his content moderation “philosophy.”
“If there are tweets that are wrong and bad, those should be either deleted or made invisible, and a suspension, a temporary suspension is appropriate but not a permanent ban.”
Wrong and bad, huh. I am reminded of what Facebook’s earliest content moderators said was the initial policy at that company, when it was all much smaller: “does this make us feel icky?” But they learned, almost immediately that such a setup does not scale, not even slightly.
It’s also just inherently and obviously ridiculous. “Wrong” and “bad” are just fundamentally subjective terms. Again, this is a point that we’ve raised before: lots of social media companies start off with this kind of simplistic view of content moderation. They say they want free speech to be the touchstone, and that they will only have to push back on the most extreme cases. But what they (and Elon) don’t seem to grasp is that there are way more challenging cases than you can predict, and there is no easy standard that you can set up for “wrong” or “bad.”
Then, as you’re (in theory) trying to scale, you realize that you need to set policies with standards for what constitutes “wrong” and “bad.” It can’t be left up to Elon to decide every one. And from there you quickly learn that for every policy you write, you’ll quickly find way more “edge” cases than you can imagine. And, on top of that, you’ll find that if you have ten different people comparing the edge case to the policy, you may get ten different answers of how to apply it.
And, again, this is actually one thing that Twitter has spent years thinking about: how do you operationalize a set of policies and a set of enforcements to make them as consistent and as reasonable as possible. And you can’t just simply look at it say “bad stuff goes, good stuff stays” because that’s just nonsense and not any way to set up an actual policy.
If he wants to bring back Trump, that’s certainly his call. Trump has claimed he wouldn’t come back, even if Elon lets him back on, but then again, he’s technically still suing Twitter to force the company to let him back on (the judge just dismissed the case, but has left it open for Trump to file an amended complaint, so the case is not yet officially closed).
But Musk is being ridiculously unfair to pretend (as a bunch of Trumpist propagandists have for years) that the decision to ban Trump was because of some “leftist ideology” and an attempt to silence his voice. It was the culmination of a very long series of events, including multiple other types of interventions, including trying to fact check his false claims and limit the spread of them (things you’d think that Musk would appreciate), but which failed to stop Trump from seeking to use the platform to egg on violence that was part of an effort to overturn the results of a free and fair election.
That Musk keeps insisting that democratic values are so important (saying elsewhere that he’d want to follow speech laws, since they represent the will of the people), you’d think he’d recognize that efforts to overturn an election might, well, raise some questions. It did for the people inside Twitter, who thought deeply about it and argued back and forth how to handle this. And that discussion and debate was a lot more serious and deserves more credit than Musk gives it.
At this point, though, it’s clear that Musk’s view of the world is simplistic and child-like. And that seems unlikely to change. Given how we’ve seen this play out on other websites, I don’t imagine it will be good for long term business, but it’s not my billions on the line.