Elon Musk’s First Move Is To Fire The Person Most Responsible For Twitter’s Strong Free Speech Stance
from the not-a-great-start dept
Last night, Elon Musk closed his on-again, off-again, on-again deal to buy Twitter, and his very first order of business was to fire a bunch of top executives. This was not necessarily unexpected. When new owners come in, they will often clean house, and the text messages revealed as part of the lawsuit while Musk was trying to get out of the deal made it clear that Musk could not stand CEO Parag Agrawal. So it seemed obvious that Agrawal would be gone immediately, but Musk also fired (at least) the other top executives who know how the company works: CFO Ned Segal, head of legal and policy Vijaya Gadde, and General Counsel Sean Edgett. That’s not a great sign for an orderly transition, as those are the executives who understood Twitter’s business the best.
And while it’s no surprise that he fired Gadde (he had criticized her in an extremely misleading way back in April, leading to a barrage of harassment that he did nothing to stop), it still should be noted that this is a huge loss for free speech. I said as much on Twitter last night, and had hordes of people calling me every name you can imagine, but this is a point worth defending, even if (especially if?) clueless people want to attack me for it. I just ask that if the premise of this post makes you mad, at least read all the details, and respond to the actual points — not whatever simplistic narrative you think is true.
Gadde did more for free speech on the internet than almost anyone else I can think of. It is difficult to overstate how important she has been in protecting free speech over the past decade. This post will only brush the surface of some of what she’s done.
But first, let’s respond to the main criticism I received for pointing this out. Lots of people insist that she was “chief censor” and that she “banned the sitting President” or that she “interfered in the election by blocking the Hunter Biden story!” and other such claims. Someone even told me she “banned half the US.” All of these complaints misunderstand the nature of free speech, and how it actually works.
First, it should be noted that of all the mainstream social media platforms out there, Twitter was by far the most permissive and the most resistant to rules that would shut down accounts. It had a significantly lighter touch on moderation than Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok. Some of this predated her role at the company, but once she took over legal, she continued to make sure the company was far more open to user speech than nearly every other platform (and that even includes the various MAGA platforms that pretend to be about free speech but are quick to ban critics).
On top of that, she made sure that when content moderation did happen, it was based on a set of principles and policies. You can disagree with where she came down on those policies (and I often did!) but she and others at the company worked hard to make sure that they weren’t making decisions in an arbitrary fashion, but based on a policy. Indeed, this is where the whole Hunter Biden laptop story went wrong. As we’ve written a bunch of times, links to the NY Post story were blocked because of a belief that the story violated Twitter’s “hacked materials” policy. That policy had been in place for a while before the laptop story came out, and in fact we had criticized that policy specifically because it seemed clear that it could interfere with journalism in the public interest (and that had happened when Twitter banned an account for linking to leaked law enforcement documents — i.e., info that was embarrassing to cops, who tend to be more right wing than left wing, countering the narrative that Twitter only blocks pro-right wing info). Twitter eventually changed that policy, which was the right call. But, again, it shows that the company had a policy and enforced it against content that favored different political viewpoints. Indeed, not enforcing the same policy against the NY Post would have been an example of Twitter giving more leeway to conservatives than liberals.
Gadde also spent a lot of time trying to think through ways to make the site welcoming for more users without banning or shutting down accounts. She recognized that every decision had serious tradeoffs. If you allow too much abuse, harassment, and rule breaking, then that can actually work against speech by driving it away, and causing people to stay silent (you know, what the “cancel culture” crowd claims is “self-censorship”); but there’s also value in diverse viewpoints and a wide variety of opinions. She tended to default more towards allowing more speech than less, but knew that a free-for-all on a single site did not actually lead to more overall speech (which is why the few “free-for-all” sites are not very large).
This is part of the reason Twitter kept on experimenting with new methods of handling trust & safety that were less restrictive than banning people entirely. It was among the first, for example, to introduce fact checks and “more information” boxes. Ridiculously, tons of people claimed that those information boxes were censorship, when they were actually a perfect example of the “more speech” approach that Twitter tried to default to in most cases, allowing the company to leave up more speech.
And, contrary to widespread belief, Twitter wasn’t in the business of “banning conservatives.” They were mostly focused on stopping jerks from harassing people. Multiple studies have showed that there’s no evidence that Twitter’s enforcement was actually biased against conservatives. It was biased against people being jerks and creating real-world harm.
That takes us to the eventual Presidential ban, which many of Trump’s fans insist is evidence of bias. But, the reality is that Twitter bent over backwards to leave Trump on the platform despite years of him violating its rules. The company really did everything to keep him on the platform (including the aforementioned fact checking bits, adding more speech) and only took this action after actual violence had broken out, and the company reasonably worried that Trump was agitating for more such violence. It was never about speech, but about not being complicit in encouraging violence. As we noted, and has proven true, Trump has never had any problem getting whatever message he wants out there. But that doesn’t mean that any individual private company needs to help him.
Indeed, this is the key point that I’ve been making for years, and that many people have trouble with: the ability of websites to moderate as they see fit, to create their own rules, and build their own communities (which can include taking enforcement action against those who break the rules) is actually essential for free speech online. Because, without it, websites wouldn’t be willing to host any third party speech at all. There would be many, many fewer places online where you could speak if websites couldn’t craft their own rules.
For all the talk of “the new public square,” as we’ve noted in the past, it’s the internet itself that is the new public square, and there are tons of different communities forming in that public square, each with their own rules. And it’s that diversity that enables so much speech online. Different places where different people can speak, and where there are different rules and norms and accepted behavior. It’s not all just one free for all, because that would just be pure noise and no signal. Twitter has been one key piece of all that. And much of that is because of Gadde’s leadership on these very issues.
And that’s not even getting to the ways in which Twitter has been a strong and true defender of actual free speech around the globe. First off, unlike Facebook and many, many other social media companies, Twitter from the beginning did not try to enforce any kind of “real names” policy, and not only allowed, but often encouraged people to use aliases and remain anonymous. This has been incredibly important in setting up Twitter as a tool for free speech, in that anonymity has enabled whistleblowers and critics to be able to express themselves without fear of direct reprisal.
But, even more importantly, unlike almost any other internet company I can think of, Twitter has embraced the fact that anonymity is protected by the 1st Amendment to fight in court over and over and over again against attempts to reveal anonymous users’ identity. It would even step into cases where it was not a party, and where most other companies would not just stand aside but simply cough up subpoenaed or government-requested data. Indeed, from early on Twitter was known to stand up against government demands for data back when most internet companies were happy to hand it over.
When it comes to pushing back against governments and their attempts to crack down on speech, Twitter’s record is undeniably stronger than just about any other company. When all the other big internet companies settled with the federal government regarding keeping secret how often it was demanding info on their users, Twitter filed and fought a First Amendment lawsuit to be able to reveal as much information as they could.
That’s supporting free speech, and much of that was driven by Gadde and her leadership.
And, that wasn’t just in the US. Twitter was among the most vocal companies pushing back on foreign governments and their demands for information or their demands to censor people. Just as one example, in India, the government demanded that Twitter remove users critical of the government, and Twitter fought back, even as the government threatened to jail Twitter employees. And when India passed a law to give the government more control over internet censorship, Twitter sued the Indian government. In fact, this lawsuit was something that Elon Musk complained about, suggesting that he’s way more willing to go along with government demands. Indeed, Musk also praised the EU’s new Digital Services Act, which is a highly censorial bill that demands all sorts of content takedowns and other censorial actions. Twitter, under Gadde’s leadership, was one of the most vocal companies in calling out how the Digital Services Act could harm speech online.
Even as we speak, one of the biggest free speech cases facing the Supreme Court this term has Twitter as a party. But Musk just fired the company’s two top legal executives who were responsible for filing the cert petition to get the Supreme Court to hear the case. I have no idea what that means, but I fear a potential shift in legal strategy.
There are many more examples, some public, many that are not public at all. But I can think of no other internet executive who has done as much for actual free speech online than Vijaya Gadde. Some people have said that whoever else Musk puts in place could just continue what she’s done, and I hope that’s the case. But, again, as hopefully some of this thread has highlighted, there has been no one at any other internet company who has been willing to do as much as she has done on these issues, so replacing her with anyone else is likely to be a downgrade. I would have said the exact same thing even if Musk hadn’t taken over and she’d left the company while it was still run by the old regime. Gadde leaving Twitter is a loss for free speech — and that seems especially true given Musk’s other comments about anonymity, about the case against India, and about the DSA.
No matter what narrative you believe, Twitter has been by far the biggest defender of free speech online over the past decade, doing way more than much larger companies, and much of that was driven by Gadde’s commitment to free speech. The firing is a loss for Twitter. It’s a loss for Musk. And it’s a loss for free speech for all of us.