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Musk, Twitter, and the "Town Square"

If you’re a fan of honest discourse, the announcement that eccentric electric-car-and-rocket magnate Elon Musk was buying Twitter was either a return to the hopes of a free-speech Internet, or a catastrophe marking the end of democracy, if not civilization.

Such a high-profile acquisition by a high-profile individual was sure to generate editorials, including this one from Washington Post columnist Meagan McArdle (reproduced below). Given the heat generated by the topic and the prominence of the Post’s own platform, McArdle’s piece generated over 1000 comments. While those comments were divided between people who agreed and disagreed with her argument, it’s up to us here at LogicCheck to subject those arguments to scrutiny.

About half of McArdle’s piece focuses on issues of inconsistency, notably how quickly critics on the Left and Right of the political spectrum switched places once it looked like a billionaire iconoclast would soon own Twitter (vs. the nameless rich people and investment banks who decided to sell ownership of the company to Musk).

Conservatives have complained for years that platforms such as Twitter and Facebook blocked, downgraded, or otherwise suppressed their views by suspending or shutting down their accounts, or “shadow-banning” the opinions of conservative controversialists (up to and including the former President). “Nonsense!” replied their liberal critics, who threw conservative principles regarding non-interference in private enterprise back in their opponents' faces.

While guffawing over Left and Right doing 180s after the Twitter announcement turned childish fairly quickly, keep in mind that there are important critical-thinking principles at stake regarding contradiction and inconsistency, even in situations where everyone stands accused of changing their opinion overnight for self-serving reasons.

For instance, in this piece I pointed out that avoidance of contradiction is at the heart of logic and argumentation, while also pointing out in this piece that we need to be careful to avoid confusing inconsistency that is part of human nature with the threat posed by simultaneously believing “A and NOT A.”

After cataloging examples of political contortionism, McArdle moves on to substantive issues, pointing out that any platform of Twitter’s scale must engage in some sort of censorship, including kicking off those who threaten violence, spread pornography, perpetrate illegal scams, or do other things that legitimately threaten the well-being of individuals and the community.

One of many discussions I got into after the Musk acquisition was announced was with someone who claimed that social media platforms banning pornography, for example, meant they should be treated as publishers, rather than the equivalent of the phone lines or mail service that were neutral to content traveling through their systems.

The debate over whether social media platforms are publishers vs. utilities is at the heart of important legal arguments too complex to get into here. But I think the writer of the editorial we’re analyzing makes a strong case that one can have rules banning porn, violence, and other threats without necessarily stepping into the role of general censor. After all, many communities also ban the sale of pornography, as well as having rules regarding violent speech, without automatically becoming responsible for everything uttered within their borders.

Given how unlikely it is that Musk will shut down every failsafe preventing Twitter from becoming 8Chan, the real debate is where to draw the line between unquestioned violations of community norms (like porn or threats) and controversial – including highly controversial – opinions (such as fights over who won the last Presidential election, the effectiveness of vaccines, or whether trans-women are women).

Given that decisions over what opinions get shut down and which people blocked or suspended are made by highly problematical algorithms and even more problematical human beings, we need to be extremely careful about ceding too much power to largely unaccountable entitles like social media firms to decide for us which opinions we are allowed to see.

The fact that liberals and conservatives have switched sides regarding fears over who will be on the receiving end of potential blacklisting means they share the same fear of getting banned, blocked, or downgraded without explanation or recourse from faceless entitles like Facebook and Twitter.

The writer saves her best and worst points for the last paragraph, starting with the very important point that we should debate and argue over the important issues of the day, rather than doing all we can to get opinions we don’t like banished from the town square. Where she falls down is in assuming – as does Musk – that platforms such as Twitter actually represent some kind of town square (i.e., a shared space where the community comes together to hash out important and challenging questions and issues).

But do they?

Every serious debate I’ve ever been in, including the ones mentioned above regarding Musk’s Twitter deal, was not carried out in 140- or 280- character outbursts, or decided based on upvotes, or who could muster a crowd to shout down one opinion or another. In fact, I would say that actual “town squares” (i.e., spaces where human beings with differing beliefs can argue over tough problems) have been polluted by norms created in places like Twitter that substitute snark and mobbing for discourse that requires taking opponents seriously.

So my decision to award McArdle just 3.5 dumbbells is not because I disagree with her points, but because she seems to have missed the most important question of all: whether we should be treating pieces of software originally created to let people share beach and cat photos as the focal point of civil and democratic discourse in the first place.

The Twitter deal is exposing partisan hypocrisy on free speech

Meagan McArdle

Washington Post, April 28, 2022

For the better part of a decade, conservatives have complained that tech giants use their power over platforms to suppress conservative views. Their complaints have not received much sympathy outside the movement. But perhaps they will now that Elon Musk is buying Twitter and the left is uneasy at the prospect of an owner hostile to its designs — specifically, an owner who is promising less aggressive moderation policies, possibly including restoring Donald Trump to the platform.

“This deal is dangerous for our democracy,” proclaimed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass). Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and New York Times columnist Charles Blow promised to delete their accounts if the acquisition goes through. And Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich complained: “Musk and his apologists say if consumers don’t like what he does with Twitter, they can go elsewhere. But where else would consumers go to post short messages that can reach millions of people other than Twitter?”

All of these missives were, of course, posted on Twitter. And all of them sound … a lot like conservatives, up until about five minutes ago.

Back in the olden days, it was Republican senators complaining that Big Tech’s control over the discourse was a threat to American democracy. Meanwhile, the left earnestly explained that Twitter is a private company — aren’t conservatives supposed to love private property? — and has a perfect right to set whatever moderation policies it wants.

What a difference a deal makes! Suddenly, “private companies can do whatever they want” might not be quite sufficient to ensure a robust, democratic debate about the vital issues of our times — and “go start your own social media platform if you don’t like it” seems a somewhat inadequate retort to those who complain.

That still leaves the argument that conservatives — and Musk — are simply wrong that social media moderators were systematically “deplatforming” conservative ideas, rather than struggling through the messy, complicated process of moderating any large-scale platform. Yishan Wong, former chief executive of Reddit, made this case shortly after Musk announced his plan to buy Twitter.

Wong suggests that the freewheeling policies of a decade past, when a Twitter exec proudly called the company “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” were fine for the old days of the Internet, when networks were small. However, as the user base multiplied, so did harassment, libel, pornography, spam and other abusive behaviors, and platforms were forced to crack down, lest all their users flee.

The sheer scale of the networks made that unavoidably controversial. Many users meant many viewpoints, including disagreements over what, exactly, crosses the line. It also meant many moderators, each judging gray areas differently, so similar cases aren’t always resolved the same way. But such minor imperfections aren’t a conspiracy against free speech, or conservatives, and if Musk tries to turn the clock back to an earlier era, he will quickly discover why all these policies were necessary.

All this sounds very reasonable, very persuasive … and yet.

Of course, Wong is right that some amount of moderation is necessary; if platforms didn’t control spam, doxxing, defamation, pornography and violent imagery, users would leave, or sue. But it does not therefore follow that they must also crack down on vaccine skepticism, people who think that trans women aren’t really women, or media stories about Hunter Biden’s shady business dealings, to name just a few of the viewpoints Twitter has at some point deemed verboten.

Those latter policies weren’t necessary to keep the platform usable for everyone; they were a choice to make the platform more comfortable for certain users, and views. That this was the effect is obvious from the lopsided reaction to the prospect of less moderation. If things were really so evenhanded, the left would not be freaking out, while the right celebrates.

(If you are tempted to suggest that the right just breaks the rules more, well, that’s sort of the point; of course conservatives will end up breaking the rules more if left-wing moderators are writing them according to their own dogma — and making all the close calls in favor of the home team.)

Now, one could argue that right-wing viewpoints ought to be suppressed because they are hateful and retrograde and dangerous to democracy. That argument is pretty common. But one could also ask whether it isn’t a little dangerous when a social media platform takes it on itself to define and massage the discourse this way. Maybe even a little … undemocratic.

After all, our deepest political divides can’t be moderated away; they have to be argued through, no matter how unpleasant the prospect, or how much we’d prefer to listen only to our own side. And where can we hash out the hard problems, if not on Twitter, the digital water cooler where the global political class gathers?


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