Now that Elon Musk owns Twitter, the time has come to shape how the platform will move forward to meet his goal of it being a public forum that is free from algorithmic manipulation, bias, and meets the spirit of of freedom of speech. But, as the first week has come and gone, it hasn’t been without controversy and a little backtracking.
How can Musk take the platform to its next stage while meeting his philosophical goals, but not allow it to completely fall apart? I have some thoughts and ideas, stemming from my own past as a community admin.
Never did I think I’d be discussing internet community moderation again. It’s been nearly 17 years since the last time I wrote a post on it. But everybody else is, so why not me? It helps that I have some (amateur) experience in the area.
What are my bonafides, exactly? Well, I used to be a management member at Invisionize (now closed), which was at one time one of the largest communities for Invision Power Board mods, themes, and tools. At IZE, my particular point of focus was the forum community itself. I also owned or moderated other communities throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, but Invisionize was the largest.
I know what some people may be thinking at this point, “Well, IZE’s focus was narrower than Twitter’s, which always for unrestricted discussion.” The point about focus may be true to a degree but we had spaces for off-topic discussion, and certainly general-purpose communities existed at the time. All admins and moderators had to contend with keeping discussion flowing while also keeping the worst behavior at bay. Though most people play nicely, you have some who make it their life’s purpose to troll, harass, and just make every the experience miserable for other community members.
This required a level of moderation. Though we were pretty lenient, we had to make sure posts in forums with a specific purpose stayed on topic, or had to move them if they didn’t. We also mandated a basic level of civility. Yes, even in the relatively wild-west internet of the aughts, we had rules against hate posts, certain language, and harassment. If users were being harassed, we warned the harasser, and if the behavior continued, put them on suspension, and later banned them if needed. At that time, forum users could have signatures, and our rules mandated they not be spammy. If they were, that could also lead to disciplinary action, and it did happen from time to time. Basically, bad actors on the internet have always existed, and at the time we needed a way to deal with it.
The Old Meets the New
Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 26, 2022
What should be done? https://t.co/aPS9ycji37
I don’t think that the nature of internet discussion has changed significantly since I admined and moderated forums. What has changed to some degree are the tools available to deal with it. Back in the old days, it was difficult to block someone from interacting with you. On Twitter, you can mute words and users, and block users, or set your mentions to keep from view all mentions except from those people you follow or who follow you. Users can even specify posts have comments blocked except from those who follow you. These tools certainly help manage the chaos but come with their own set of trade-offs.
Other than muting words I don’t prefer them. I do occasionally block but not often. I believe that by locking down your settings to engaging with those you already know or have already vetted, it limits opportunities for organic discussion and I think douses the spirit of the platform. It makes it more like Facebook, in my opinion, where interacted in limited to a subset of users. The risk is to create a silo that I think Musk would permit but philosophically surely wants to avoid if he really does believe in a widespread, healthy discourse.
That said, there may be things that Twitter can do that won’t be so restrictive. During a speech he made at the Qatar Interactive Forum earlier this year, Musk says he intends to do exactly this:
“If your preferences are to see or read anything, then you’ll get that,” he said. “But if your preferences are well, you prefer not to see, you know, comments that you find offensive in one form or another, then you can have that as a setting and not see it.”
This suggests that finer tuned settings will be coming. Great! If there can be something between nothing and shutting off the feed except for your predefined group, I’m all for it. However, I fear it will not be enough.
A Time to Choose Moderation Strategy
There are already signs that Musk’s Twitter won’t be a total free-for-all that some have feared, though more of one than they’d like. Even back in April, there was some acceptance that a level of moderation would be required:
Obviously, following the law makes sense, though doing so is itself a moderation decision. Still, one hopes under Musk’s leadership, Twitter will vigorously defend the right to remain anonymous as the old leadership did. If so, Elon will have to find someone new to spearhead those efforts since he fired the person who was doing that. Also, which laws? Definitely of the United States, but will that be the only government’s laws Twitter follows? If another government tells Twitter to block someone or limit their content for violating their laws, will Musk allow it? Whether the answer is yes or not, that is also a moderation decision.
We know there is one specific moderation decision Musk has already made: stopping impersonation.
Going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying “parody” will be permanently suspended— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 6, 2022
Of course, this appears to have come about because people were impersonating him (or, more accurately, parodying him). This has led to long-winded discussions on the platform about whether or not this is illegal at the federal level (probably not), but debating that is not not the point of this article. What is the point is that suspending for impersonation is yet another choice in moderation.
Even now, Twitter still mostly has its old rules in place:
Twitter rules will evolve over time, but they’re currently the following: https://t.co/Ut1tXuefso— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 7, 2022
I think that’s actually smart. Musk could have come in and removed every rule and made it the free-for-all that was feared/celebrated, and only then added in a new set of rules. But again – say it with me – keeping the rules is also a moderation decision! He even plans to modify, but not completely remove the rules, at some point, based on community input:
Twitter's content moderation council will include representatives with widely divergent views, which will certainly include the civil rights community and groups who face hate-fueled violence— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 2, 2022
This is pretty much an admission that the new Twitter won’t be entirely a free-for-all, and yes, it’s a moderation decision. At Invisionize, we periodically updated the rules to respond to changing situations. I think having this council is also smart, as long as he actually listens. Time will tell.
Again, to be crystal clear, Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 4, 2022
In fact, we have actually seen hateful speech at times this week decline *below* our prior norms, contrary to what you may read in the press.
So we know Musk is open to a moderation scheme. Now he has to decide what to keep, what to change, and what, if anything, to add. Here are a few things I think we’ll see in the updated rules:
- Ban Abuse/Harassment: At minimum, I don’t see how Twitter survives without some kind of rule against harassment. Sure, users can implement the tools described above, but as I said, I think everyone having their own mini-walled-garden goes against the spirit of the platform. Also, these tools are opt-in and, honestly, a little difficult to find. New users coming to the site seeing campaigns to harass somebody will just leave. Also, harassment is against the law in many or most jurisdictions.
- Ban Against Direct Violence: As with Invisionize, I think Twitter will need to mandate some basic level of civility. Twitter, of course, isn’t exactly the champion of this even now, but if all new users see is people sparking absolute vile at each other, it will drive them away. At the least, I think he’ll have to keep the rule about not threatening violence against a person. Perhaps even some level of restriction on heated speech, though definitely at a much higher bar than today.
- Ban Against Hateful Actions: Are we seeing a pattern here yet? I expect that the restrictions on hate speech will be severely curtailed but not against hate crimes, which is also against the law. He could explain that because it’s against the law users won’t be able to threaten or encourage violence against groups of people, protected or otherwise.
Note: these are not the only things I’d add. I’m only suggesting what is possible under Musk’s regime. However, a lot of these ideas gel well with each other and he would be able to justify them by citing the law. I do expect to see a loss of a lot of the hate speech rules that exist, as well as any algorithms or decision matrices that suspend people for certain views.
All-in-all, it will be disappointing to those on the alt-right, the 4 and 8-channers who hope Twitter will just become another version of those sites. It will also be disappointing to those on the left, who might be looking for more of a controlled environment. Yet, I think it’s necessary. Twitter is both a town square and a business. It needs to feel inviting to the average potential participant and not cave to catering to one side or another. Keep the environment too extreme on either side and it will drive people away. Free speech? Sure, absolutely, but make sure there is just enough of a support structure in place that people want to participate in it.
The Path Forward
Running an internet community is not easy. People will be people and you have to decide how to respond to that. You can be very lax and have a free-for-all or decide to impose some rules. Not everyone’s going to be happy either way, and while you try your best, fairness in applying them is always a work in progress. I think this will become apparent as Musk evaluates the current situation and hears from the community.
He’s taking a crash course in all of this and a lot is on his shoulders to do it right. Veer too far one way or another and the site could die. If he’s unclear about what’s to come or takes too long to decide, users might leave out of sheer impatience. While I think the future for Twitter has promise, the first two weeks under his ownership have been rocky to say the least. Can Musk do the job? It’s possible but I think he needs to be clear about his intentions while also not letting the site fall off the rails in the meantime.