Elon Musk is set to take Twitter private, and in doing so, to create his vision for the future of the platform. Specifically, Musk has said that he views Twitter as a “digital town square,” and as a self-described “free speech absolutist,” believes in removing content restrictions, even for posts that are harmful or offensive. Allowing all voices to be heard, Musk reasons, is “the bedrock of a functioning democracy.” Unfortunately, Musk’s facile approach ignores some important differences between the traditional town square and the one online: Removing all content restrictions without accounting for these differences will harm democratic debate, rather than help it.
The concept of a “marketplace” of ideas has its origins in a dissent in an early twentieth century Supreme Court case authored by Oliver Wendell Holmes and echoed in later court decisions. Using the economic model of supply and demand as a metaphor, our free speech jurisprudence is based on the premise that ideas should compete with each other without government interference. In other words, the answer to bad speech isn’t censorship, but more, and better, speech. Ultimately, as with the free market for goods and services, the best ideas will prevail and the worst ideas will fail. The market model, while imperfect, offers some compelling justifications against censorship and in favor of having ideas tested through robust debate.
The problem is that social media platforms like Twitter are nothing like a real public square. In my Information Warfare class, I illustrate this by showing a clip from an anti-fascist film created by the U.S. Department of War in 1947. The scene depicts what we think of as a traditional “speaker’s corner” in a public forum, with the speaker espousing offensive, and anti-democratic, views. I ask my students to watch the clip, and identify the ways in which the scene is different than when those same sentiments are expressed on a platform like Twitter.
My students typically home in on a few key differences. For one thing, they note, in the real public square, there is a clear delineation of roles: There is a speaker, and a listener, which could fairly approximate a supply/demand model. The listeners, moreover, are able to discuss and debate the content they are hearing with each other, in person and in private, to debate its value and determine if it’s worth listening to. If they disagree with the speaker, they can heckle, but they don’t have megaphones or other artificial modes of amplification to drown the speaker out. In addition, all of the participants can only represent one individual – themselves. They can’t duplicate themselves, or create a fake audience for the speaker to make the speech seem more popular than it really is. Finally, the speaker has accountability. Everyone in the audience knows who he is, and because his gestures and facial cues are also communicated to the audience, the audience has additional information on which to evaluate whether the speaker is credible.
Twitter distorts all of these features. For one thing, it flattens the market dynamic – everyone is a speaker, and a listener (and a publisher and a reader, for that matter). Anonymity removes accountability and the ability to assess a speaker’s credibility or authenticity. The prevalence of bots, combined with the amplification features on the platform, can artificially inflate the “value” of an idea. Most importantly, Twitter’s algorithms don’t reward and boost the best ideas, but the ones that generate the most engagement. Unfortunately, this means that mis- and disinformation occupy the largest “market share” on the platform – a study by M.I.T. demonstrated that falsehoods travel “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth…and in many cases by an order of magnitude.” If Twitter is a marketplace of ideas, it’s clearly in need of some regulation.
Such regulation doesn’t necessarily mean content restriction, but a free market approach will require some rules on what’s allowed and what’s not. In the securities market, for example, we prohibit insider trading, and some forms of coordinated activity, because we believe that the true value of a company can only be reflected if its investors are competing on a relatively level playing field. Similarly, to approximate a real marketplace of ideas, Twitter has to ensure that ideas can compete fairly, and that their popularity represents their true value. To be sure, Musk has suggested taking steps to this end, like eliminating bots and authenticating all accounts (which would effectively remove anonymity, resulting in a tradeoff with other values). But those steps still wouldn’t correct the market distortions created by Twitter’s algorithm, and it’s not clear that even Twitter’s engineers understand how that algorithm works.
It’s important to note that the free speech model isn’t the only one available to Musk. A pro-democracy model, for example, might weight sources based on accuracy and reliability and give reliable information a greater “boost” in the algorithm, as Facebook did (temporarily) before the 2020 election. Such a model could actually make certain kinds of censorship, like for election misinformation, desirable. And a public health model might remove the features of Twitter, like the “like” button and infinite scrolling news feed, which keep us addicted to our screens. The point is that there are other values – like promoting trust in democratic institutions, or mental health – that Twitter could maximize besides free speech, if it chose to do so. Any of these frameworks require, of course, that Musk employ a thoughtful, sophisticated, and nuanced approach to the platform – something that, judging by his recent tweets, won’t be happening anytime soon.