Politics

What Should Twitter Forbid? Be Specific.


This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Friday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.


Question of the Week

Elon Musk bought Twitter. Anticipating that the deal will go through, many are advising him on how to improve the platform, with a focus on the tension between free speech and content moderation. Musk called free speech “the bedrock of a functioning democracy” and signaled his intention to make Twitter a platform that constrains it less often than it does now, later clarifying that “by ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”

Of course, Twitter is not bound by the First Amendment, but it could voluntarily adopt First Amendment standards, declaring that if the government would be legally unable to censor a given tweet, then Twitter will treat that tweet as safe from its corporate censors as a matter of policy.

Here’s Marc Andreessen articulating a case for that approach:

We have 231 years of jurisprudence and case law, hard fought and hard argued by many of the best minds in our history, for both free speech and exceptions to free speech. It is hard to believe the crazed activism of our time can lead to superior conclusions.

Alternatively, Twitter could adopt or retain stricter content-moderation policies with respect to contested categories like harassment, hate speech, misinformation, disinformation, pornography, and more. Some say this is needed to protect vulnerable users or “to save democracy.”

For example, here is an NAACP statement on the matter:

Mr. Musk: free speech is wonderful, hate speech is unacceptable. Disinformation, misinformation and hate speech have NO PLACE on Twitter. Do not allow 45 to return to the platform. Do not allow Twitter to become a petri dish for hate speech, or falsehoods that subvert our democracy. Protecting our democracy is of utmost importance, especially as the midterm elections approach. Mr. Musk: lives are at risk, and so is American democracy.

That brings us to this week’s question: What should the content-moderation rules at Twitter be?

Of course, you can’t tackle everything in your answer––but while focusing on what matters to you, I urge you to give specifics! For example, if you want a rule against hate speech, define “hate speech,” write the rule, and give examples of edge cases that do and don’t qualify. Want the First Amendment standard? Bite the bullet, acknowledge the harrowing stuff you’ll therefore allow, and defend that as the least-bad option. Want a rule against misinformation or disinformation? Write it and explain exactly how judgment calls will be made on an ongoing basis. Or if you know what you want to ban but can’t seem to write a viable rule to ban it, explain your difficulty. And thank you in advance for all of the hard work––after all, content moderation is hard.

Email your thoughts to conor@theatlantic.com. I’ll publish a selection of correspondence in Friday’s newsletter.


Conversations of Note

Derek Thompson observes that Elon Musk is “a brilliant executive,” noting that “one of his companies technologically outpaced NASA at the same time that his other project became the most valuable car company in the world.” Still, he argues, no one knows how Musk will fare at Twitter, “unlocking the value of its content, opening the free-speech spigot, clamping down on abuse, all while making heavy users on both the far left and the far right simultaneously happy.”

He adds:

A hard-tech CEO choosing to install himself as head of a chaotic social-media scrum is like the world’s most talented lion tamer paying to lock himself inside a shark tank with a great white. Why would anyone do this to themselves? Wait, no, maybe he’s actually got this? Or maybe the shark eats him immediately? Everything is in play here.

To run a social-media company in 2022 is to invite metric tons of scorn to be heaped upon you every minute of your waking life. Musk may have invited an inconvenient amount of political scrutiny for a guy who has worked, and continues to work, with the federal government …

Money transfers, cars, and rockets are responsive to engineering prowess. People are impossible. People are horrible, and brilliant, and strange, and nasty, and clever, and conniving. People bite back in a way that software and hardware do not. So although my faith in Musk as a strategic executive is nonpareil, I predict that Elon Musk will fail as Twitter owner. Ten years from now, when I imagine he will no longer be Twitter’s leader, the narrative of 21st-century technology will shift from “Software is easy; hardware is hard” to “Software is easy, hardware is harder, and humans are impossible.”

The Flight 93 Special District

Remember when Florida passed that law limiting instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools, prompting criticism from Disney that upset Republicans in the state? Those Republicans have hit back, passing a law that would dismantle the special district that allows the Disney corporation, rather than Orange and Osceola County taxpayers, to handle services at Walt Disney World like road upkeep, fire protection, trash collection, and more.

Who would defend the state blatantly retaliating against a private business for its political speech? Josh Hammer does so at The Daily Signal, marshaling the hysterical amoralism of the populist right:

To spike the football in such a fashion, so goes the narrative, would be “indecent.” To punish a high-profile enemy within the confines of the rule of law, making a woke corporate behemoth pay for its advocacy of the civilizational arson of corroded childhood sexual innocence, would be gratuitous and—egad!—“illiberal.” The problem with this logic … It was a political loser in the presidential elections of 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012, and … in the 2016 presidential primary, when Donald Trump—the most pro-“winning” rhetorician and the single candidate least besotted with liberal pieties—shocked the establishment and prevailed. And it is a substantive loser because the right’s vision of a more naturally ordered, just, and solidaristic society will obviously be—indeed, has demonstrably been—hindered by unilaterally abandoning the playing field of moralistic legislation and statesmanship to the one-way cultural ratchet of progressivism.

Again, we are talking about how Disney World handles things like water treatment and flood control. But in Hammer’s telling, “At this increasingly late hour of our republic, what status quo defendants meekly offer is, to borrow a phrase from the Claremont Institute’s Matthew J. Peterson, the ‘suicidal anti-politics of “principled” loserdom.’” How do people justify abuses of state power? Here, by flattering themselves that they’re fighting to save civilization from evil when they are in fact fighting to shift pothole fixing to less efficient Orlando-area bureaucracies.

During a recent podcast of National Review’s editors, Charles C. W. Cooke, a conservative Florida resident who generally likes Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, castigated him for his abuse of power, calling it “the sort of petulant, vengeful, Jacobin behavior that Republicans are supposed to avoid.” DeSantis supporters are willfully conflating the education bill and the retaliatory move to punish Disney, he complained. But DeSantis had a win after he signed his bill into law, enjoyed popular support, told Disney to screw off, and fundraised off all of it. Disney lost, Cooke said, “in the public eye, partly because the bill was popular … So now we’re talking about something completely different, something unrelated, as if it is the original fight. And it’s not.”

Cooke continued:

This is retribution. Some will admit it. Some will say that’s the point of it. Others will pretend that the underlying policy change is good and this is just an occasion on which to effect it.

That isn’t true … The independent district that houses Walt Disney World works, and everybody knows it … Rescinding it will make Floridian policy worse. This is not a carve-out. It is not a special treatment. It is not a tax break. It is the way that Florida deals with unusual circumstances … Disney World has 175 miles of roads inside it. It has 67 miles of waterways. It has 44,000 hotel rooms. Three lakes. Three islands. Four amusement parks. Two water parks. There is a reason Florida set this up … because Disney World is a weird place.

… And for the Florida legislature in a fit of pique to say, “Screw it, you’ve lost your status,” is an Elizabeth Warren–style policy. It is not good Republican policy. It’s going to cause huge problems. It’s going to lead to tax increases, which Republicans are supposed to be against. It’s going to lead to more bureaucracy. It’s going to lead to debt being passed on to citizens. And I think it’s about time that conservatives here recognize that DeSantis is not infallible. That he has done a terrific job, that his [instinct] to run straight through whatever opposition raises its head is usually a good one, but that this was silly and not synonymous with fighting or good governance or anti-wokeism.

Should Liberté Be Sent to the Guillotine?

At Jacobin, in an article entitled “The Left in Purgatory,” Bhaskar Sunkara worries that the left is losing the support of workers:

We might feel more confident about the prospects for the Left if, rather than a momentary shift leftward in liberal economic priorities or the rhetoric of certain parts of the mainstream media, there had been deeper inroads made among workers. There have been rare exceptions, but on the whole, it would be delusional to say that our ideological left has made a decade of progress merging with a wider social base. Indeed, the question we may have to ask ourselves in the years to come is whether some of our actions could be hastening rather than reversing the process of class dealignment.

In Compact, Sohrab Ahmari argues that of course the left’s actions are hastening their loss of the working class:

To anyone willing to look out the window and honestly describe what he sees, the answer is obvious: Aggressive cultural liberalism doesn’t answer—but exacerbates—the crises facing wage earners. Leftists’ boutique identitarian concerns don’t concern the underclass. And the culture clashes between the two camps reflect material conflicts.

Previously, Ben Burgis, also writing at Jacobin, pointed out that Ahmari’s brand of social conservatism is unpopular:

Compact’s founders seem to believe that the ruling class is imposing social liberalism on an unwilling majority. But the majority of our society is wildly socially liberal by historical and global standards—or even by recent American ones.

According to a recent Pew poll, fewer than 10 percent of Americans think that marijuana should be illegal, for example. Almost three quarters agree with the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage assailed by [Matthew] Schmitz. Two-thirds oppose laws that limit trans rights. As young conservative Nate Hochman recently acknowledged, polling shows that even young Republicans are “more liberal than their older counterparts on everything from diversity to LGBT rights to immigration to climate change.”

… At least until some unforeseen cultural shift dramatically realigns public attitudes, any scenario by which neo-medieval traditionalists succeed in wielding state power to smite gay people who want to get married and women who want to control their own bodies and drag queens who want to read to children at the library is a scenario by which social conservatism is imposed against the will of a large majority of the American populace.

The New Right

James Pogue profiles the movement in Vanity Fair, characterizing it as follows:

The podcasters, bro-ish anonymous Twitter posters, online philosophers, artists, and amorphous scenesters in this world are variously known as “dissidents,” “neo-reactionaries,” “post-leftists,” or the “heterodox” fringe—though they’re all often grouped for convenience under the heading of America’s New Right. They have a wildly diverse set of political backgrounds, with influences ranging from 17th-century Jacobite royalists to Marxist cultural critics to so-called reactionary feminists to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, whom they sometimes refer to with semi-ironic affection as Uncle Ted. Which is to say that this New Right is not a part of the conservative movement as most people in America would understand it. It’s better described as a tangled set of frameworks for critiquing the systems of power and propaganda that most people reading this probably think of as “the way the world is.” And one point shapes all of it: It is a project to overthrow the thrust of progress, at least such as liberals understand the word.

This worldview, these worldviews, run counter to the American narrative of the last century—that economic growth and technological innovation are inevitably leading us toward a better future. It’s a position that has become quietly edgy and cool in new tech outposts like Miami and Austin, and in downtown Manhattan, where New Right–ish politics are in, and signifiers like a demure cross necklace have become markers of a transgressive chic. No one is leading this movement, but it does have key figures.

Michelle Goldberg laments its rise and posits a factor that might help to explain it:

This vibe shift was predictable; when the left becomes grimly censorious, it incubates its own opposition. The internet makes things worse, giving the whole world a taste of the type of irritating progressive sanctimony [David] Brock had to go to Berkeley to find.

I’ve met few people on the left who like online progressive culture. In novels set in progressive social worlds, internet leftism tends to be treated with disdain—not a tyranny, but an annoyance. In Torrey Peters’s “Detransition, Baby,” a young trans woman reacts with priggish outrage to a dark joke shared between the book’s heroine, Reese, and her friend, both older trans women. “Reese recognizes her as one of those Twitter girls eager to offer theory-laden takes on gender,” writes Peters. “The girl has listened in on the joke and shakes her head—insensitive!—staring at them over her black-framed glasses with watery, wounded eyes.”

For those who get most of their politics online, this can be what the left looks like—a humorless person shaking her head at others’ insensitivity. As a result, an alliance with the country’s most repressive forces can appear, to some, as liberating.

Back in 2013, Scott Alexander demonstrated the value of pseudonymous speech by publishing the definitive case against reactionaries.

Provocations of the Week

In Politico, Kathy Gilsinan, author of The Helpers: Profiles From the Front Lines of the Pandemic, argues that Nebraska has had one of the most successful responses to the coronavirus pandemic, even though its governor, Pete Ricketts, “runs a heavily Republican and rural state with a middling vaccination rate—factors that have been linked to worse pandemic health outcomes in other states.”

She writes:

He never ordered a statewide shutdown when 43 other governors, Democrats and Republicans, did so; he has stood against … local mask requirements; he has told state agencies not to comply with federal vaccine mandates … And yet by the fall of last year, when POLITICO crunched the data of state pandemic responses on a combination of health, economic, social and educational factors, one state came out with the best average: Nebraska.

The state had the best economic performance of any in the pandemic up to that point, and its students, according to available data, appear to have suffered little to no learning loss. Whereas many states saw a trade-off between health and wealth in the pandemic—often corresponding to more-restrictive Democratic leadership and less-restrictive Republican leadership, respectively—Nebraska also scored above the national average for health outcomes POLITICO evaluated last year (20th of 50 states). Nebraska was the first state to accumulate a 120-day stockpile of PPE in the nationwide scramble for supplies; was a national leader in opening schools; and was among the quickest getting federal aid to small businesses. As of now, its cumulative pandemic death toll per capita is near the lowest of all 50 states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

That said, she adds, Nebraska is being graded on a curve in this analysis, given that the United States underperformed many other countries when it comes to per capita deaths from COVID-19.

In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty takes aim at student-loan relief:

The plan being mulled by the Biden administration to cancel and forgive up to $1.6 trillion of federal student-loan debt is a brazen act of class warfare by the affluent against everyone else. It is a politically, and cosmically, unjustifiable robbery that offers yet more rope for the decadent and totally indefensible American college system to become even more decadent and indefensible. The overwhelming majority of student debt is held by the affluent; less than 10 percent of it is held by the bottom third of earners. Nearly 40 percent of it is held by students who earned advanced degrees—many of them now doctors and lawyers. Unemployment for the college-educated is less than 2 percent.

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