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When the World Wide Web opened for public use in 1991, its enthusiasts proclaimed a new era of unfiltered free expression. That was before the internet in general, and social media platforms in particular, proved to be such effective places to spread misinformation about important matters such as Covid-19 and vaccines, disinformation (intentional falsehoods) about politics and elections, plus all manner of conspiracy theories and hate speech. Social media platforms have faced enormous scrutiny over which content it silences, and which it amplifies. That’s the backdrop as Elon Musk pursues his deal to take ownership of Twitter Inc., vowing to prioritize free speech.

1. Isn’t there a right to free speech on the internet?

No. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits censorship by government, not censorship by private companies. In fact, like newspapers, book publishers and television stations, online gathering places such as Twitter and Facebook have constitutional protections to decide what to moderate and filter. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives them broad protection from the kinds of liability publishers traditionally face for defamatory content, along with broad leeway to moderate discussions and remove posts or leave them alone.

2. How do the companies moderate speech?

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube routinely remove posts deemed to violate standards on violence, sexual content, privacy, harassment, impersonation, self-harm and other concerns. Most of those actions happen automatically, through decisions made by artificial intelligence. (That’s led to complaints of over-enforcement, or the removal of content that may not have violated rules.) Meta Platform Inc.’s Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google partner with third-party fact-checkers to vet posts and news items that may be suspect. Twitter labels some posts that contain misleading or disputed claims in certain categories, like Covid-19 or elections. More rarely, the platforms ban users, such as radio provocateur Alex Jones, removed from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Apple for engaging in hateful speech. Then-President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Twitter accounts were frozen following the Jan. 6 riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol. Twitter barred him permanently; Facebook says it could reinstate him in 2023 if “the risk to public safety” has subsided.

3. What is Musk’s view?

He calls himself a “free speech absolutist” and promises to take a minimalist approach to restrictions. “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law,” he tweeted one day after reaching a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion. “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.” A few weeks earlier, during a panel discussion at the Ted2022 conference, Musk said he would be “very reluctant to delete things” and “very cautious with permanent bans — timeouts, I think, are better.” He’s talked about opening Twitter’s content algorithms — which decide which posts are promoted or demoted — for public scrutiny and trying to “authenticate all real humans” as a means of differentiating between bots and legitimate accounts. Musk has also suggested allowing long-form tweets, breaking from Twitter’s current limit of 280 characters. 

It won’t be easy, even for the world’s richest man. “He’s launched rockets into space, and he helped solve the world’s energy crisis,” said Matt Navarra, social media consultant and industry analyst. “He’s about to discover tackling content moderation on social media platforms is harder than both those things.” Evelyn Douek, a senior research fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, writes in the Atlantic that Musk is destined to learn that user-generated platforms will lose users, advertisers and tech partners if they don’t moderate the scams, pornography and other offensive material that comes flooding in. “Many who thought an anything-goes internet governed by its users alone was a good idea came to regret their naivete,” she writes.

5. Who else has been unhappy about the moderating of content?

Lots of people. Trump condemned social media platforms for “suppressing voices of conservatives and hiding information and news that is good” and started his own platform, Truth Social, but that rollout has floundered. The presidential election of 2016, when Trump used Twitter as a megaphone, led to a torrent of criticism of social media companies about what many saw as anything-goes policies for politicians. That criticism grew as Trump, as president, used Twitter to issue threats, mock opponents and stretch truth. (Cornell University researchers found that Trump “was likely the largest driver” of misinformation about the pandemic.) Frances Haugen, who worked as a Facebook product manager for almost two years, mostly on a team dedicated to stopping election misinformation provided fresh ammunition for critics of all political persuasions. In disclosures to the Wall Street Journal and testimony in Congress, she said a tweak Facebook made in 2018 to its proprietary algorithm boosted the visibility of toxic, disputed and objectionable content that stirred outrage and anger among readers, leading to more interaction with the service.

6. How do other countries handle this issue?

In China, Russia and other countries subjected to authoritarian rule, governments actively censor the internet, including blocking or greatly restricting access to American-owned social media sites. Some democracies are moving quicker than the U.S. to apply more vigorous rules to social media. India put Twitter, Facebook and the like under direct government oversight, enacting regulations requiring internet platforms to help law enforcement identify those who post “mischievous information.” The European Union’s Digital Services Act approved on April 23 gives member states new power to take down illegal content such as hate speech and terrorist propaganda and make platforms do more to tackle harmful material. Companies like Twitter must submit annual reports to the EU detailing how they’re handling systemic risks posed by content such as racist slurs or posts glorifying eating disorders. After Musk sealed his takeover of Twitter, EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton sent the billionaire a warning: “Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules — regardless of their shareholding,” he said in a tweet. “Mr Musk knows this well.”

(Updates to add reference to Europe’s Digital Services Act in section 6)

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