Running Twitter Is Going to Disappoint Elon Musk

Social media’s newest billionaire overlord is in for a surprise.

Elon Musk
Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post / Getty

About the author: Evelyn Douek, a doctoral student at Harvard Law School, is a senior research fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

A fun thing about content moderation—the practice of social-media platforms deciding what we can and cannot say in some of the world’s most important online spaces—is that almost everyone thinks that it’s broken, albeit in different ways. Almost everyone also thinks that if you just put them in charge, they would fix things. When you’re the world’s richest man, you can actually give it a shot. And so, Elon Musk is buying Twitter, and a main reason is that he doesn’t like the company’s content moderation.

A peculiar fact about our modern public sphere is how much its borders depend on the whims of a few companies and their billionaire owners. A handful of people—mostly men and mostly in Silicon Valley—decide whether Russian state media should be allowed to have social-media accounts, whether a controversial post about the coronavirus can be amplified to millions of people or will be taken down, and whether the former president of the United States will keep or lose his most direct line to the global public. The executives who kicked Donald Trump off Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube early last year could’ve made those judgments by coin toss and no one could have done anything about it. The deliberation about whether to let him back on if he runs for president again in 2024 could be just as arbitrary. Millions of similar decisions—of differing levels of consequence—are made every day.

Our public sphere is governed by almost entirely unconstrained private power. As the internet has become ever more centralized on just a few major platforms, the impact of those companies over every aspect of our lives—politics, culture, the very way we speak—has kept on growing.

That might not seem so bad when content-moderation decisions come out how you want them to. Many on the left celebrated platforms’ ability to banish Trump with a few clicks. Many on the right believe they are unfairly targeted by left-leaning Silicon Valley executives and may celebrate a more freewheeling Twitter if Musk gets rid of many of its content-moderation rules. But that’s shortsighted. Ultimately, private power will always protect private power and not public interests.

Beyond the stray hints he’s offered in tweets, SEC filings, and interviews, Musk hasn’t given much detail about his vision for Twitter. But if he thinks it can exist without extensive content moderation, he is in for a shock. A universal rule of user-generated platforms is that every one of them has to moderate posts once it reaches a certain size. A platform that refuses to dirty its hands by taking down content will soon become flooded with scammers, porn, terrorist recruiters, and, sometimes, literal shitposts. And its user base, its advertisers, and the other tech companies it relies on to operate won’t like that. Parler, Gettr, and Reddit all learned this lesson the hard way. That’s not even to mention the tightropes platforms have to walk in dealing with governments around the world that are ramping up pressure on platforms to submit to their will, often at the cost of their citizens’ free-speech rights.

Fine-grained and consistent content moderation is impossible on platforms that host hundreds of billions of posts a year. Optimists might argue that Musk is known for his ability to make seemingly improbable things happen: private space travel, mass-market electric vehicles. And some of Musk’s ideas for Twitter could open up new possibilities. He has said he wants to make the platform’s recommendation algorithm “open source” so that people can see what it is promoting or demoting. Many digital-rights activists and regulators have been calling for similar kinds of algorithmic transparency for a while. Platforms and policy makers should be thinking about new ways to empower users and the public in the governance of online spaces.

But most of Musk’s vision does not actually appear to be that novel. Instead, it’s a return to the past. In its early years, Twitter staked out a position as more hands-off than its peers. It famously pronounced itself the “free speech wing of the free speech party.” But the past half decade of public criticism, and the pandemic especially, has prompted most major platforms to shift stance. Perhaps at times they overcorrected. But if Musk has a utopian vision of a libertarian internet, he should read about the history of content moderation. Many who thought an anything-goes internet governed by its users alone was a good idea came to regret their naivete.

So platforms must moderate, but Musk is right that the public deserves more insight into what’s going on. The public and regulators should demand more transparency so that they know what content is actually on platforms, how platforms are moderating it, and whether they are actually upholding their publicly stated rules. Internet companies routinely say that they enforce their rules evenhandedly and not because of business or political incentives. But they should be forced to structure themselves in ways that reflect those commitments. Specifically, their trust-and-safety teams shouldn’t be intermingled with their revenue-growth and lobbying teams. Platforms should be forced to disclose how outside parties—including fact-checkers, governments, and other platforms—influence their content-moderation decisions, and submit to independent audits of their systems to make sure they are doing what they say. Law can do more to force platforms to be more proactive and accountable. And regulators are slowly lumbering toward making this a reality. Just this week, for example, the European Union announced that it has reached a deal on a major package of platform regulation—although the final details are yet to be released.

In the meantime, our online sphere remains at the mercy of plutocrats. No matter what Musk does with Twitter, we may soon find ourselves wistfully remembering the good old days when Twitter was run by a different eccentric billionaire, Jack Dorsey, who ate only seven meals a week and appeared to testify before Congress from his kitchen. But we can do better than such nostalgia. The best thing about this Musk comic-drama should be to illustrate why we need to demand more for our public sphere than just better billionaire overlords.