How Much Should Speech Be Moderated on Social Media?

On Monday, the entrepreneur Elon Musk struck a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion. The Times reports:

The billionaire, who has more than 83 million followers on Twitter and has romped across the service hurling gibes and memes, has repeatedly said he wants to “transform” the platform by promoting more free speech and giving users more control over what they see on it . By taking the company private, Mr. Musk could work on the service out of sight of the prying eyes of investors, regulators and others.

What do you think about Mr. Musk’s purchase of Twitter? Based on what you know about Mr. Musk, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the company under his leadership? If you use Twitter, will this change in ownership affect the way you engage with the platform?

More specifically, are you excited about Mr. Musk’s potentially loosening Twitter’s content moderation policies or worried by it?

In “Buying Twitter, Elon Musk Will Face Reality of His Free-Speech Talk,” Shira Ovide writes that Twitter and other internet companies have struggled to reconcile the high-minded principle of free speech with its messier realities:

Soon, Mr. Musk will be the one confronting the gap between an idealized view of free speech and the zillion tough decisions that must be made to let everyone have a say.

His agreement to buy Twitter puts the combative billionaire, who is also the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, at the white-hot center of the global free-speech debate. Mr. Musk has not been specific about his plans once he becomes Twitter’s owner, but he has bristled when the company has removed posts and barred users, and has said Twitter should be a haven for unfettered expression within the bounds of the law.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Mr. Musk said in a statement announcing the deal.

Mr. Musk is a relative dilettante on the topic and hasn’t yet tackled the difficult trade-offs in which giving one person a voice may silence the expression of others, and in which an almost-anything-goes space for expression might be overrun with spam , nudity, propaganda from autocrats, the bullying of children and violent incitements.

“We need to protect freedom of speech in order to make our democracy work,” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “But there is a lot of distance to cover from that premise to the kinds of decisions that social media companies have to make every day.”

Almost no place on the internet or in the physical world is a zone of absolute free expression. The challenge of online expression is the challenge of expression, period, with questions that have few simple answers: When is more speech better, and when is it worse? And who gets to decide?

In countries with strong courts, civic groups and news media to hold politicians accountable, it may be relatively benign when elected leaders trash talk their opponents online. But in countries such as Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Somalia, government leaders have weaponized social media to subject their critics to releaseless verbal harassment, to spread that mostly unchecked or to incite ethnic violence lies.

If Twitter wants to pull back from moderating speech on its site, will people be less willing to hang out where they might be harassed by those who disagree with them and swamped by pitches for cryptocurrency, fake Gucci handbags or pornography?

The column conclusions:

There is no getting around the fact that Mr. Musk will join Mr. Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, TikTok’s Shouzi Chew and Apple’s Tim Cook as the handful of corporate executives who have enormous say over granting oring access to platforms of denying global discourse.

One of the paradoxes of the Silicon Valley revolution is that it disempowered old gatekeepers of information and persuasion such as media tycoons and political leaders but created new ones. Mr. Musk’s purchase of Twitter won’t change that. We may not want these digital media barons to have so much power, but the reality is that they do.

Students, read the entire columnthen tell us:

  • How much do you think speech should be moderated on Twitter and other social media platforms? Do you think there are certain kinds of messages — like harassment, hate speech, misinformation or spam — that users should not be allowed to post? Why or why not?

  • What risks are there to less content moderation on social media? What benefits are there? In your opinion, do the benefits outweigh the risks? Why or why not?

  • “The deal will give Musk enormous influence over politicians, celebrities and the media, with the ability to platform and de-platform them at will,” Andrew Ross Sorkin, a Times columnist, writes in our newsletter The Morning. Do you agree with this interpretation? How do you feel about the ability of Mr. Musk, and other billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg, to make the rules for influential social media platforms?

  • In an Opinion essay, the author Anand Giridharadas writes that Twitter faces problems with disinformation, racism and bullying and harassment. Have you experienced these on Twitter or elsewhere on social media? Do you think the loosening of content moderation guidelines is likely to exacerbate or resolve these problems?

  • Mr. Musk has suggested that he may make several changes to Twitter, including to its content moderation policies and its algorithm. Imagine you were in charge of a major social media platform. How would you alter it? Why?

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