Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
Elon Musk likes using Twitter so much that he bought the company. Or rather he’s taken a 9.2 per cent stake, enough to make him the biggest shareholder.
But as well as liking Twitter, he also wants to change it. And that begs an obvious question: why? It’s not that Twitter doesn’t need changing — any social network regularly referred to by its users as “this hellsite” has obviously got problems. But why would Elon Musk make it his problem?
Hasn’t the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX got better things to be getting on with? Re-inventing the car and conquering Mars is quite the to-do list. But, evidently, the world’s richest man thinks that fixing Twitter is worthy of his time and attention. Here’s how he explains it:
“Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.”
He’s right, of course. Though Twitter hasn’t displaced traditional sources of news and opinion, it has, for the first time in history, joined them up into a single, never-ending, global conversation. And even if that doesn’t grab you personally, most of our politicians and journalists are hooked.
So, yes, Twitter matters. But can it be improved?
Let’s start with what is Musk’s main concern: free speech. It’s clear that Twitter — along with the other big social networks — has bought into the great misinformation scare.
Admittedly, the internet is a sewer of lies, but is it sensible for the tech companies to set themselves up as the arbiters of truth? On what basis can they decide what should and shouldn’t be said on matters like Covid policy — except by deferring to those in power?
Yes, charlatans do spread baseless falsehoods, but is that really more dangerous than allowing the judgements of a fallible expert class to go unchallenged?
It’s not misinformation that predisposes people to belief in conspiracy theories, but a lack of faith in the official line. By acting as a public censor on behalf of the state or the liberal establishment, the social media companies are contributing to an atmosphere of mistrust in which conspiratorial thinking thrives.
That’s especially true when the restrictions placed on free speech appear to be inconsistent. For instance, Donald Trump was booted-off Twitter more than a year ago, unlike the representatives of some of the world’s less pleasant regimes. One needn’t have the slightest sympathy for Trump’s bad loser act to see how this looks to the 74 million Americans who voted for him.
And, in any case, de-platforming the Orange Man hasn’t worked. According to the latest poll, Trump is on track to win back the Presidency in 2024. The danger is that social networks are over-estimating the effectiveness of their crack-downs, while under-estimating the divisive impact of censorship.
Twitter needs a new free speech policy — and, as an American company, the US constitution would be a good place to start.
Apologists for online censorship like to point out that the First Amendment applies only to government restrictions on freedom of expression. Private businesses are free to make their own rules.
However, it’s also worth pointing out that as a private business, Twitter could be sold to a wealthy right-wing businessman who could change the rules to target his political opponents. Pro-censorship ‘liberals’ really ought to think ahead on this one.
Of course, just because something can be said it doesn’t mean it ought to be. Furthermore, the right to free speech is buttressed by an equally important liberty: the right not to listen. In theory this is built into the architecture of Twitter, which allows each user to choose who to follow and who to put on mute.
However, there’s a flaw in the design.
It’s incredibly tempting to use Twitter to keep tabs on the people you love to hate — if only to see what stupid thing they tweet next. This is bad for the soul, and I’d advise against it. But even if one assiduously avoids the temptation, there’s no guarantee that the offending individual won’t be retweeted by somebody else onto your timeline.
Twitter, therefore, needs a ‘hard mute’ option — one that wouldn’t just hide the tweets of a bête noire, but any tweet that so much as mentions them. If you can’t think kindly about someone, it’s best not to think about them at all.
Another way to civilise Twitter — and social media in general — would be to ban anonymous accounts. A lot of people wouldn’t be so nasty online if everyone could see who they were.
Yet, at the same, there are valid reasons why some users might need to hide their identity. For instance, to provide cover for dissidents abroad or for whistleblowers at home.
One way through this dilemma would be to open the blue tick verification feature to all users. You wouldn’t have to be any sort of VIP, you’d just need to state who you are (and provide reasonable proof). A parallel ‘green tick’ could be used for users who have a good reason to use a pseudonym.
With this verification system in place, users could then be given the option of mass muting all non-verified accounts. Anonymous trolls could carry on trolling, but no one would have to see them doing it.
Perhaps the most radical way of reforming Twitter would be to reveal its inner workings — or, as Musk puts it, make the algorithm open source. It would be fascinating to find out exactly how the site boosts particular stories, hashtags and advertisements.
But as well as transparency, we also need empowerment: users should be able to create their own algorithms to elevate the Twitter content they might actually want to see.
Some tools already exist — not least the ‘trending’ feature, which picks up on what other users are liking and retweeting.
However, this tends to favour Twitter’s tedious army of online activists. The more mindless and unoriginal the political thought, the more likely it is to trend. This is no way to highlight quality content.
So here’s an alternative: each user would be able to select a ‘panel’ of other users who would recommend tweets. A user’s default panel would be everyone they follow on Twitter, but names could be added or removed.
Recommendations would be made using a new ‘gold star’ button, which would appear alongside the ‘retweet’ and ‘like’ buttons, but which could only be used once per day. Twitter would total up the gold stars to provide each user with a tailored list of top recommendations.
It would be a simple algorithm, but one genuinely created and controlled by the user.
In the space of a decade, Twitter has acquired a special role in facilitating the exchange of news and ideas. All too often, lies and insults are also communicated. But instead clamping down on free speech, the best way forward is to give users more control over who they interact with.
When it comes down to it, Twitter is just a website. Making it better requires nothing more material than rewriting some code — which, as Musk could tell you, isn’t rocket science.