Twitter, like every Starbucks, McDonalds, shopping center, and radio station, has other obligations and interests. Those spaces must maintain order, decorum, cleanliness, and comfort to keep revenue flowing and customers or audiences happy. That’s why the US constitution protects us only from the censorious power of government, not the needs of private entities to restrict expression that might harm their core missions. US law, Musk might be frustrated to learn, not only allows but encourages digital platforms to moderate the content that flows across them.
Twitter is an advertising company. But it’s also a forum for expression. So its rules and design are, understandably, built to consider both the commercial and expressive desires of advertisers and users. That’s a difficult balance to maintain. No social media company has come close to protecting users and fully satisfying advertisers while also allowing for full range of expression in more than 100 languages around the world. Content moderation at a global scale is impossible to do well, but it can always be done better.
Musk’s pledge to limit Twitter’s content moderation to that which the law of any nation demands leaves, in the US anyway, vast arrays of distracting, destructive, and dehumanizing expression able to flow freely to their targets. For years, women who have expressed themselves freely on Twitter have done so expecting and experiencing threats, the exposure of private information, and constant harassment. This phenomenon – one caused by the proliferation of expression – impedes the ability of millions of Twitter users to express themselves confidently and have their ideas taken seriously.
Trolling is expression that crushes expression. It undermines the ability of groups of people to think collectively and productively about serious issues. Musk knows this. He’s the richest troll in the history of the world. And he’s frighteningly unserious.
Some Musk fans have found their accounts suspended for violating clear Twitter rules against, for instance, deadnaming and misgendering transgender people. Musk himself has mocked the practice of clarifying one’s preferred pronouns.