Elon Musk had a plan to buy Twitter and undo its content moderation policy. On Tuesday, just a day after reaching his $44 billion deal to buy the company, Mr. Musk was already at work on his agenda. He tweeted that previous moderation decisions by a top Twitter lawyer were “obviously incredibly inappropriate”. He later shared a meme mocking the lawyer, sparking a spate of attacks from other Twitter users.
Mr. Musk’s personal criticism was a rough reminder of the problems faced by employees who create and enforce Twitter’s complex content moderation policies. His vision for the company would take it back to where it started, employees said, and force Twitter to relive the past decade.
Twitter executives who drafted the rules said they once held views on online speech similar to Musk’s. They believed that Twitter’s policies should be limited, following local laws. But more than a decade of grappling with violence, intimidation and election tampering have changed their minds. Now, many executives at Twitter and other social media companies view their content moderation policies as essential safeguards to protect speech.
The question is whether Mr. Musk, too, will change his mind when confronted by the darkest corners of Twitter.
“You’ve said you want more ‘freedom of speech’ and less moderation on Twitter. What does this mean in practice?” Twitter employees wrote in an internal list of questions they hoped to ask Mr. Musk, which was seen by DailyExpertNews.
Another question was: “Some people interpret your arguments in defense of free speech as a desire to reopen the door to harassment. Is that true? And if not, do you have any ideas for both increasing freedom of speech and keeping the door closed to harassment?”
Mr. Musk is unfazed by warnings that his plans are misguided. “The extreme antibody response of those who fear freedom of speech says it all,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
He then criticized the work of Vijaya Gadde and Jim Baker, two of Twitter’s top lawyers. Ms. Gadde has led Twitter’s policy teams for more than a decade, often making complicated moderation decisions, including the decision to fire Donald J. Trump near the end of his term as president. Mr Baker, a former FBI General Counsel, joined Twitter in 2020.
Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal did not immediately respond to the criticism, but wrote in a tweet: “Proud of our people who continue to do the work with focus and urgency despite the noise.”
Employees at Twitter and other social media companies said Mr. Musk seemed to understand little about Twitter’s approach to content moderation and the issues that led to the rules — or that he just didn’t care. Some of the suggestions he made, such as labeling automated accounts, were in effect before Mr. Musk launched his offer.
Out of Opinion: Elon Musk’s Twitter
Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the billionaire’s $44 billion deal to buy Twitter.
“He’s basically buying the position of rulemaker and speech arbitrator,” said David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has worked with the United Nations on speech issues. “That has been really fraught for everyone who has been in that position.”
In its early years as a small start-up, Twitter was governed by one philosophy: The tweets have to flow† That meant Twitter did little to moderate the conversations on its platform.
The founders of Twitter took their cues from Blogger, the publishing platform, owned by Google, that some of them had helped build. They believed any objectionable content would be countered or drowned out by other users, said three employees who worked at Twitter at the time.
“There’s a certain amount of idealistic zeal that you have: ‘If people just embrace it as a platform of self-expression, great things will happen,'” said Jason Goldman, who was on Twitter’s founding team and board of directors. board sat. † “That mission is valuable, but it blinds you to think that certain bad things that happen are bugs rather than an equally weighty use of the platform.”
The company typically only removed content if it contained spam or violated US laws prohibiting child exploitation and other criminal acts.
In 2008, Twitter hired Del Harvey, the 25th employee and the first person to be challenged to moderate content full-time. The Arab Spring protests began in 2010 and Twitter became a megaphone for activists, reinforcing the belief of many workers that good speech would win online. But Twitter’s power as a tool of harassment became apparent in 2014 when it became the epicenter of Gamergate, a massive harassment campaign that inundated women in the video game industry with death and rape threats.
“If there are no rules against abuse and harassment, some people risk being bullied and you don’t get the benefit of their voice, their perspective, their free speech,” said Colin Crowell, former head of Twitter. of global government policy, who left the company in 2019.
In response, Twitter began expanding its policies. But new threats emerged. In September 2016, a Russian troll ranch quietly created 2,700 fake Twitter profiles and used them to sow controversy over the upcoming presidential election between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The profiles went undiscovered for months, while complaints of harassment persisted. In 2017, Jack Dorsey, then CEO, stated that policy enforcement would become the company’s top priority. Later that year, women boycotted Twitter during the #MeToo movement, and Mr Dorsey acknowledged that the company “still wasn’t doing enough”.
He announced a list of content the company would no longer tolerate: nude images shared without the permission of the person in the photo, hate symbols and tweets glorifying violence.
In 2018, Twitter banned several accounts linked to the hack-and-leak operation that exposed Ms. Clinton’s campaign emails, and it began suspending right-wing figures such as Alex Jones from his employ for repeatedly using it. violated policy.
How Elon Musk Bought Twitter
Map 1 of 6
A blockbuster deal. Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, put an end to what seemed an unlikely attempt by the famed mercurial billionaire to buy Twitter for about $44 billion. Here’s how the deal unfolded:
The first offer. Mr. Musk made an unsolicited offer of more than $40 billion for the influential social network, saying he wanted to turn Twitter into a private company and that he wanted people to speak more freely about the service.
The following year, Twitter introduced new policies designed to prevent the spread of misinformation in future elections, by banning tweets that could deter people from voting or mislead them about how to do so. mr. Dorsey banned all forms of political advertising, but often left tough decisions about moderation to Ms. Gadde.
Twitter also developed a strategy that allowed it to track more tweets: instead of removing them, it added labels to tweets that contained misinformation about elections and limited their ability to spread quickly across the platform.
In preparation for the 2020 US presidential election, Twitter banned manipulated videos known as “deepfakes” and banned users from sharing material obtained through hacking campaigns.
That policy was tested when The New York Post published an article containing emails purportedly obtained from the laptop of Hunter, the son of Joseph R. Biden Jr. Fearing the material came from a hack-and-leak operation, Twitter blocked sharing of the article on its platform.
mr. Dorsey publicly disagreed with the decision. Days later, Ms. Gadde announced that the policy had changed and that Twitter would allow the Post article to appear in tweets.
The episode has become a hub of conservative critique on Twitter, resonating with Mr. Musk’s criticism of Ms. Gadde.
Mr. Musk said he wanted to take Twitter back to the early days, when only illegal content was removed. “I am against censorship that goes way beyond the law,” Musk tweeted Tuesday.
Mr. Musk’s plans may also face legal difficulties in Europe. On Saturday, European policymakers reached an agreement on groundbreaking legislation called the Digital Services Act that would require social media platforms such as Twitter to more aggressively monitor their services for hate speech, misinformation and illegal content.
The new law requires Twitter and other social media companies with more than 45 million users in the European Union to conduct annual risk assessments about the spread of harmful content on their platforms and map out plans to combat the problem. If they don’t do enough, the companies could be fined up to 6 percent of their worldwide turnover, or even banned from the European Union for repeated violations.
Within Twitter, frustrations have grown over Mr Musk’s moderation plans, with some employees questioning whether he would really quit their job at such a critical juncture, when they’re about to moderate tweets about elections in the United States. Brazil and other national elections in the United States. States.
Adam Satariano contributed to the reporting.