On Monday, Twitter suspended comedian Kathy Griffin from the site after she changed her name to "Elon Musk" in an effort to impersonate and make fun of the bird site's new owner.
This has produced not-entirely-undeserved charges of hypocrisy on Musk's part, given that one of his very first actions after acquiring the site two weeks ago was to confidently proclaim "comedy is now legal on Twitter." It would appear that comedy is only permissible if it is clearly labelled as such.
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 policy isn't actually new: Even before Musk, parody accounts were ineligible for verification. Twitter's current policies state that users "may not impersonate individuals, groups, or organizations to mislead, confuse, or deceive others, nor use a fake identity in a manner that disrupts the experience of others on Twitter." But the policy is clearly inconsistent with an ethos of free speech absolutism, which Musk has stated is his guiding principle.
This gets at a larger problem, which is that "free speech absolutism" does not work as a content moderation strategy. There are many examples of speech that would be legal under a First Amendment framework—the government may not take action against them—but are nevertheless unwelcome on social media. Musk himself has declared war on spam and bots, and for good reason: This kind of content degrades the user experience, confuses advertisers, and distorts the true financial value of the company.
Eliminating pathologically obnoxious content is a smart idea, but it isn't in-keeping with a principle of abiding by the Constitution's own prohibitions on censorship. Musk has said that he is "against censorship that goes far beyond the law"; the law permits him to engage in as much or as little censorship as he wishes, since he is the owner of a private company and not an employee of the federal government. But if he is defining "free speech" as whatever the First Amendment allows, then taking action against Kathy Griffin certainly violates it.
Musk has further complicated matters by vowing that Twitter must become "the most accurate source of information about our world." Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey asked a perceptive follow-up question: "Accurate to who?" After all, social media moderators who nuked the Hunter Biden laptop story or prevent discussion of the COVID-19 lab leak theory likely thought they were working in the best interests of accuracy—it just so happened that they were misguided. Efforts to purge misinformation from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube go awry, not because the moderators are nefarious, but because they are prone to the very same biases as everyone else.
Twitter does have a feature that offers a potential, intriguing solution to the misinformation problem: a program formerly known as Birdwatch, which is being renamed Community Notes. Birdwatch is user-curated fact-checking, which makes it more like Wikipedia, and thus vastly superior to the kind of fact-checking employed on other social media sites. Facebook, for instance, has outsourced fact-checking to a small number of activist organizations that often make basic mistakes.
But even so, it's clear accuracy, authenticity, and free speech are all guiding principles that will occasionally interfere with one another. Perhaps Musk should just admit the rules are going to be whatever he decides they should be, likely with the goal of maximizing revenue, vis-à-vis advertisers or by charging $8 for verification. Users are going to have to live with that.
There is a kind of content moderation that more obviously violates free speech principles, and even comes closer to running afoul of the First Amendment—that would be "jawboning"; government bureaucrats routinely contact social media companies and push them to remove content. The extent of these efforts are becoming better known to the public each day—it is clear that White House officials made specific overtures to content moderators on various COVID-19 subjects.
If Musk wants to position Twitter as a free speech utopia, he should resist and expose such government threats.