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Can Elon Musk save twitter?

It is always difficult, with Elon Musk, to determine what he is actually trying to do. Yesterday he spent three billion dollars – about what Ireland spends on the entire Justice system in one year, to put it in perspective – to buy a 10% stake in twitter.

It is entirely possible that this is the prelude to some kind of hostile takeover. And it is entirely possible that Elon Musk was just feeling a little bored, and decided to spend 3 billion dollars just to get people talking. That is the nature of his character.

For the purpose of this piece, however, we will assume that this is the prelude to Musk mounting some sort of hostile takeover of Twitter by buying a majority of the company’s shares, and installing a new board of directors and new policies on free speech.

We will further assume that he is successful in that effort.

Such a takeover would certainly be welcome news for those of us concerned about the creeping control of speech and expression by American Corporations and their employees. Twitter is, at this stage, probably the most important forum for free speech in the world, at least in the context of public affairs. No other social media outlet has the same interaction between the powerful – politicians, people like Musk himself, journalists, and so on – and the powerless. The genius of the platform has always been that it is a place where a single mother can tell her Prime Minister that he is failing her, and have a realistic hope that he or she might see it.

And of course, it is precisely because of that dynamic that it is a forum which invites abuse. Give people the power to tell their leaders that they are monsters, and many will take it. It is a platform which often showcases the worst of humanity, as well as the best of it.

Which brings us to the subject of free speech. There are a great many people who, reading the news of the Musk investment, will dream of a day when they will no longer be censored. Some of those people, of course, have been wrongly censored. Twitter’s policy of hiding and suppressing some voices has been widely reported on, and it is wrong.

But there is a difference between free speech, and respectful conduct, and the difference is sometimes misunderstood.

Some twitter policies are good: For example, repeated harassment of somebody should get you a ban. Posting anti-semitic cartoons should get you a ban. Calling for JK Rowling to be killed should get you a ban.

Those are all free speech issues, but more importantly, they are issues of civility and decency.

The challenge Musk faces, if he proceeds, and succeeds, is this: How do you balance the right of people to express whatever views they want, without allowing those who would use that freedom to just make the entire experience unpleasant for everybody else a free hand to do just that?

Moderation will always, by necessity, be subjective. It is, indeed, free speech to call your King or Queen or Prime Minister a paedophile without evidence. It is also both defamatory, and just downright unpleasant. If Musk’s intention is to allow all of those who have been banned for that kind of conduct back onto the platform, then he will fail. It will be very easy to express a commitment to free speech – but what do you do, say, about Holocaust denial? That is free speech, but does it add anything to the platform?

It would be very easy, in other words, for a commitment to free speech to backfire entirely. Which is why Musk probably shouldn’t make one: He’s a businessman, not the Government.

What he should do instead is make a commitment to no ideological bias. Whatever the rules are, they must apply to everybody equally, and be seen to apply to everybody equally. If there is to be a rule against posting conspiracy theories, for example, then it should apply to people who claim Donald Trump is a Russian Spy just as much as it applies to people who claim that there is some sort of New World Order pulling strings. If there is to be a rule about civility, then it should apply to the far left as much as it does to the far right.

At the moment, that is not what Twitter does: It has a clear, and observable pattern of being much more tolerant of bad behaviour from progressives than it is of bad behaviour from anybody else.

If Musk can put an end to that, and apply the rules fairly, he might achieve something. If, on the other hand, he just opens the doors to a free for all, it won’t be long before people are demanding a return of the censors.

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