In the wake of Elon Musk’s buy of Twitter, many commentators bemoaned Musk’s guarantees to finish censorship on the platform. In so doing, these writers have spun a revisionist narrative. It alleges that, after 2016, Twitter nobly tried to interact in accountable, politically impartial “content moderation” aimed narrowly at stopping threats and harassment. But now, supposedly, Musk’s buy threatens to undo the platform’s “progress” in enhancing “user safety” and selling civility.
This narrative, nonetheless, is baseless. In actuality, Twitter’s practices and public statements on free speech modified dramatically round 2016, from a place of stringently defending the free speech rights of its customers to bemoaning the complete idea. Indeed, Twitter’s post-2016 efforts at “content moderation” have been shot by means of with political bias, each on the coverage and enforcement stage.
Until about 5 years in the past, Twitter took an almost absolutist place in defending the free expression of its customers and disavowing censorship of any kind — one just like the place taken by Musk at present. At the coverage stage, Twitter promised its customers that “we do not actively monitor user’s content and will not censor user content, except in limited circumstances” similar to impersonation, violation of trademark or copyright, or “direct, specific threats of violence against others.”
Twitter’s public statements had been likewise unequivocal. In 2012, Twitter’s then-vice president declared, “We are the free speech wing of the free speech party.” Twitter’s chief authorized officer said that very same yr, “We should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is.”
Twitter fought compliance with even prison subpoenas in search of consumer posts, and The New York Times mentioned the corporate “has deftly built something of a reputation for protecting free speech, even unpopular speech.” The Times praised Twitter for sticking to its “principles,” noting that “other companies” like Yahoo and Google had “repeatedly stumbled on issues of free speech and privacy,” similar to by compromising consumer anonymity, which “can endanger dissidents and others with unpopular opinions.”
The Shift Began in Late 2015
Twitter’s rhetoric started to vary, nonetheless, in late 2015. In December 2015, Twitter unveiled its first “hateful conduct policy,” prohibiting customers from “promot[ing] violence against or directly attack[ing] or threaten[ing] other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.” Twitter emphasized that it nonetheless sought to advertise freedom of speech, however that abuse and harassment can forestall folks from talking out.
It quickly grew to become clear, nonetheless, that Twitter’s new censorship efforts could be slanted towards conservatives. On February 9, 2016, Twitter introduced it was creating the “Trust and Safety Council,” which it billed as “a new and foundational part of our strategy to ensure that people feel safe expressing themselves on Twitter.” The council included left-wing teams such because the Anti-Defamation League and Feminist Frequency, however no free speech advocates or right-of-center voices.
In 2017 and once more in 2018, Twitter made main additions to its hateful content material coverage. Twitter’s 2018 revision, for instance, tripled the coverage in size and explicitly in-built political bias by including a controversial ban towards “misgendering,” which was ultimately used to censor The Babylon Bee and Tucker Carlson. This new coverage successfully censored the expression of the extensively held political viewpoint that a person’s gender is set by his intercourse at beginning.
The promulgation of latest insurance policies got here with the everlasting banning of many outstanding right-wing accounts however of nearly no liberals. Indeed, Twitter’s account bans focused conservatives nearly completely. Of the 22 outstanding people completely banned by Twitter between 2015 and early 2019, 21 had been supporters of Donald Trump.
Disavowing Neutrality and Free Speech
Beginning in 2017, amid the fallout from Brexit and Trump’s victory within the 2016 presidential election, Twitter started to publicly disavow its previous protection of free speech. Sinead McSweeney, a Twitter vp, testified earlier than British Parliament in December 2017, “I look back over last five and a half years, and the answers I would have given to some of these questions five years ago were very different.”
Back then, she defined, “Twitter was in a place where it believed the most effective antidote to bad speech was good speech. It was very much a John Stuart Mill-style philosophy.” But the corporate had “realized the world we live in has changed. We’ve had to go on a journey with it, and we’ve realized it’s no longer possible to stand up for all speech in the hopes society will become a better place because racism will be challenged, or homophobia challenged, or extremism will be challenged.”
Similarly, Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, declared in early 2019, “I don’t believe that we can afford to take a neutral stance anymore. I don’t believe that we should optimize for neutrality.”
Twitter’s bias grew much more pronounced after 2019. It culminated in Twitter’s coordinated suppression of reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop computer simply earlier than the 2020 election, which Dorsey later admitted was “wrong,” and its ban of President Trump in January 2021. The latter was ostensibly for Trump’s remark that he wouldn’t attend President Biden’s inauguration, which Twitter characterized (absurdly) as a “glorification of violence that could inspire others to replicate violent acts.”
In brief, Twitter’s stepped-up efforts at “content moderation” post-2016 weren’t impartial makes an attempt to purge the platform of abuse. Instead, they had been nakedly political efforts to regulate public discourse by selectively banning viewpoints, customers, and information articles.
And the corporate’s post-2016 censorship efforts marked an open break with the corporate’s earlier vigorous protection of free speech as its core worth. Indeed, it was underneath the banner of “free speech” that Twitter at first grew into an unprecedented public discussion board for world communication and attracted a vital mass of customers.
Twitter’s latest struggles to draw new customers and income, and its subsequent buy by Musk, replicate justified frustration at heavy-handed and biased censorship practices — not an unlucky break with a noble experiment in “content moderation.”
Noah Peters is an legal professional in Washington, D.C.