Civics: “Gatekeepers”, Censorship and “content moderation”

Matt Welch

News Thursday morning that the outspoken serial tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has offered to buy Twitter and take it private has surfaced widespread anxieties within the knowledge-class industries that free speech and even societal peace will be jeopardized if the Tesla CEO lifts content restrictions from journalists’ favorite social media platform.

“I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter,” wrote Max Boot, columnist for The (Jeff Bezos–owned) Washington Post, on Twitter. “He seems to believe that on social media anything goes. For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.”

Boot is a longtime apocalyptic troll—past lowlights include declaring that “I would sooner vote for Josef Stalin than I would vote for Donald Trump,” and advocating the Federal Communications Commission go after Fox News to forestall “the plot against America.” But his anxiety about allegedly unfettered free speech is revealingly common in media, academia, Silicon Valley, and the government.

“For somebody with a lot of money to just come in and say, ‘Look, I’m going to buy a part of this company, and therefore my voice as to how your rules are adopted and enforced is going to have more power than anybody else’s’ — I think that’s regressive after years of [Twitter] trying to make sensible rules,” University of California, Irvine, law professor and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye was quoted in Vox on Tuesday. “Twitter has stepped away from this idea of it being the free speech wing of the free speech party, and being a more realistic custodian of speech on the platform.”

Those “realistic” and “sensible” rules Twitter has adopted include banning thousands of political provocateurs (including then-President Donald Trump in 2021), suspending entire news organizations for publishing stories that turned out to be largely true, creating warning labels for COVID-19 “misinformation,” strengthening filters for allegedly threatening speech, and so on.

“After all that, bringing Musk onto the board seems like a big step backward,” former Reddit CEO Ellen K. Pao wrote last week in The Washington Post. “Musk calls himself a ‘free-speech absolutist,’ but like many ‘free speech’ advocates, he willfully ignores that private companies are free to establish some limits on their platforms.”