It’s Not The Decision, But The Process: Musk & The Trump Decision
from the stop-the-nonsense dept
Going to put this up front, because I expect a bunch of people to not read and assume something very incorrect: I think there are valid arguments (even pretty strong ones) for why it makes sense for social media platforms to allow Donald Trump on them (there are also valid arguments against it). But, conducting a poll is the stupidest possible way to make that decision. It’s Musk’s platform, and he’s free to run it however he wants, even making the stupidest possible decisions. But it should raise questions among its users whether or not they wish to embrace such a platform, and just how much damage Musk will do in pursuit of stunts.
Making serious decisions, which can have massive impact on people’s lives, through stunts is not just reckless, but it foreshadows much more dangerous decision-making to come.
Now, to the details: as you’re probably aware, over the weekend Elon Musk ran a poll on Twitter asking people whether or not Donald Trump’s Twitter account should be reinstated:
This is despite his earlier claim that no decisions would be made on changes to trust & safety policies or the reinstatement of accounts until a “content moderation council” could be convened:
While the poll started out with Trump heavily, heavily favored (which perhaps says something about Musk’s staunchest supporters), over the course of 24 hours, it moved more and more towards even, but ended (as you can see above) barely in the “yes” column. Musk then immediately announced that the public had spoken and he was reinstating the account, repeating the very, very stupid Latin phrase “vox populi, vox dei” (some recently departed Twitter employees informed me that he’s been saying this all the fucking time in meetings, and people are mocking him for it behind his back, but he seems to think it makes him sound cool).
A few minutes after that tweet went up, Trump’s account came back. As of me writing this, Trump has not tweeted again from the account. When asked, he has insisted that he’s staying on his own flailing platform Truth Social. According to SEC filings, part of Trump’s deal with Truth Social is that he signed a contract obligating him to use the site rather than other social media. There’s a literal clause in the agreement that his social media activity must appear exclusively on Truth Social for at least six hours. It’s in the section on “license agreement” and notes:
From December 22, 2021, until the expiration of 18 months thereafter, (the “TMTG Social Media Exclusivity Term”), President Trump has agreed to first channel any and all social media communications and posts coming from his personal profile to the Truth Social platform before posting that same social media communication and/or post to any other social media platform that is not Truth Social (collectively, “Non-TMTG Social Media”) until the expiration of “DJT/TMTG Social Media 6-Hour Exclusive” which means the period commencing when DJT posts any social media communication onto the Truth Social Platform and ending six (6) hours thereafter; provided that he may post social media communications from his personal profile that specifically relates to political messaging, political fundraising or get-out-the vote efforts at any time on any Non-TMTG social media platforms. Unless notice is given, the TMTG Social Media Exclusivity Term extends in perpetuity for additional 180-day terms.
Of course, Trump’s signature on a licensing agreement is about as trustworthy as Elon’s promise of no reinstatements until his content moderation council met.
For what it’s worth, in addition to reinstating Trump, Musk reinstated various other awful people, mocked the head of the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, (who I have policy differences with, but Musk’s doing so immediately resulted in a bunch of Twitter users gleefully sharing anti-Semitic comments, claiming Musk was signaling to them directly) and made it clear he is in favor of chaos for the sake of chaos with no concern over what harm it might do.
Well, there was one exception to that. Musk has said a few times now that he won’t reinstate Alex Jones, and when pressed on it, claimed that it was because “My firstborn child died in my arms. I felt his last heartbeat. I have no mercy for anyone who would use the deaths of children for gain, politics or fame.”
And, of course, this partly demonstrates the problem. Musk recognizes the potential harms in one area of trauma that he has personally experienced, but seems to not care one bit about harms others have experienced.
In some ways, it’s the worst of what people assume about content moderation on most websites: that it’s driven entirely by the whims of an out of touch billionaire CEO. In most cases, that’s not true. Here, Elon is making it clear that’s how it will work on his Twitter.
Perhaps equally problematic was that, this weekend, after Jordan Peterson played the “white man’s gambit” of arguing for less anonymity, and Jack Dorsey piped in to suggest that would be a bad idea, Musk popped in to note that “Verification through the payment system plus phones, but allowing pseudonyms is the least bad solution I can think of.”
Again, this is telling. Musk is focused on “the least bad solution” that he can think of, rather than, perhaps, talking to any of the many, many people who have actually studied this issue and found that forced verification is extremely dangerous for free speech, especially for those with legitimate reasons to fear for their safety. People speaking out against authoritarian rulers. People blowing the whistle on malfeasance. Victims of domestic violence or sexual assault calling it out.
But, again, Musk hasn’t experienced any of that personally, so why should it matter?
Bringing this back around to the point: it’s impossible to do content moderation well at scale. Everyone makes tons of mistakes. But there are real lessons out there on things that work well and things that are stupid and dangerous. And Musk is making it clear that he wants to ignore all of those lessons, and redo all the mistakes, perhaps making them worse in the process. It’s possible that he’ll run the learning curve and eventually land back where things kinda were before, but with less clarity and understanding, but we sorta predicted that back in April.
I’m not necessarily upset that Trump’s account is back (whether he tweets or not). I do think, however, the process by which Musk got there demonstrates a near total lack of concern for how any of this can and should work, and especially no concern for the harm he can do to others in the process.
Back when Twitter initially decided to issue a permanent ban on Trump, I wrote a long post detailing how such a decision could not be an easy one, and there were plenty of arguments against it. But, in the end, the various platforms had to weigh a variety of factors, including how responsible they wished to feel concerning the attempted overturning of an election. Similarly, when the Oversight Board was reviewing Facebook’s decision to ban Trump, we filed a comment that did not take a stand on either side of the central question, but did advocate for a much better process in how Facebook makes such a decision. We concluded that comment by noting:
There may not be any one right answer, or even any truly right answer. In fact, in the end the best decision may have little to do with the actual choice that results but rather the process used to get there.
And that takes us back to Musk’s decision making here. If you’re going to do content moderation and trust & safety, having some sort of underlying process and principles is important. That’s not to say they can’t change over time, or that they won’t face challenges as every possible edge case shows up, such that you realize that nearly every case feels like an “edge case” that doesn’t neatly play into the rules. But you need to have some sort of basic concepts behind what you’re doing.
Throwing it entirely open to a vote is, to put it mildly, crazy. I mean, for all of Musk’s silly pretentious “vox populai, vox dei” stuff, plenty of people have pointed out that the phrase originates from Alcuin of York in a letter to Charlemagne in 800, in which he warns that believing such a thing is dangerous:
“And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always close to insanity.”
Of course, like so many things, there are situations where a “democratic” vote makes sense, and many where it does not. A purely democratic vote can be used to oppress a minority, for example. Also, a simple poll on Twitter… is not a representative sample. There are all sorts of problems with it. First of all, Musk set up a simple yes/no option, when it could be a lot more nuanced that. But by framing it the way he did, those are the only choices. Then there are the questions of who actually saw it and who voted. That’s not public at all.
Finally, for months (literally until a month ago), Musk insisted that Twitter was full of bots, not people. And, even here, he admitted partway through the vote that “bots” were voting. Though, of course, he insisted that it was only the people voting “no” who must be bots and “troll armies.” Again, that certainly does not suggest that anything about this poll is “the voice of the people.” Not only is he admitting that much of it is not, in his belief, he is publicly stating his own bias regarding what the correct answer should be.
Through all of this, Musk has made clear that the content moderation practices for Twitter are now whatever he thinks of, on a whim, that will be most entertaining for himself. He has no real process. He has no real principles. He does not care one bit about past lessons. He does not care about what damage or danger his whims may cause. None of that matters to him.
And voting is not how content moderation decisions should be made, at least not without significant effort and education going into the process. Merely asking people “yes or no” without detailing the tradeoffs, or the nuances, or the specific reasons why suggests a lack of concern not just for how all of this plays out, but for having an informed public weighing in at all.
He is, of course, free to do all of that (within certain limits). But it does not mean that people will enjoy being on is site, or that advertisers will feel comfortable putting their brands on the site. It has convinced me to spend less time there, as it does not feel safe at all, and I no longer have any confidence that there are people in a decision-making role at the company who can be trusted to want to do the right thing, even when the right thing may be impossible to do.
Musk does not care about doing the right thing. He cares about attention. It’s a choice he is free to make. But it’s not one that I need to support.