This month, I chose to leave my position leading trust and safety at Elon Musk’s Twitter.
My teams were responsible for drafting Twitter’s rules and figuring out how to apply them consistently to hundreds of millions of tweets per day. In my more than seven years at the company, we exposed government-backed troll farms meddling in elections, introduced tools for contextualizing dangerous misinformation and, yes, banned President Donald Trump from the service. The Cornell professor Tarleton Gillespie called teams like mine the “custodians of the internet.” The work of online sanitation is unrelenting and contentious.
In a news release announcing his agreement to acquire the company, Mr. Musk laid out a simple thesis: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” He said he planned to revitalize Twitter by eliminating spam and drastically altering its policies to remove only illegal speech.
Since the deal closed on Oct. 27, many of the changes made by Mr. Musk and his team have been sudden and alarming for employees and users alike, including rapid-fire layoffs and an ill-fated foray into reinventing Twitter’s verification system. A wave of employee resignations caused the hashtag #RIPTwitter to trend on the site on Thursday — not for the first time — alongside questions about whether a skeleton crew of remaining staff members can keep the service, now 16 years old, afloat.
And yet when it comes to content moderation, much has stayed the same since Mr. Musk’s acquisition. Twitter’s rules continue to ban a wide range of lawful but awful speech. Mr. Musk has insisted publicly that the company’s practices and policies are unchanged. Are we just in the early days — or has the self-declared free speech absolutist had a change of heart?
The truth is that even Elon Musk’s brand of radical transformation has unavoidable limits.
Advertisers have played the most direct role thus far in moderating Mr. Musk’s free speech ambitions. As long as 90 per cent of the company’s revenue comes from ads (as was the case when Mr. Musk bought the company), Twitter has little choice but to operate in a way that won’t imperil the revenue streams that keep the lights on. This has already proved to be challenging.
Almost immediately upon the acquisition’s close, a wave of racist and antisemitic trolling emerged on Twitter. Wary marketers, including those at General Mills, Audi and Pfizer, slowed down or paused ad spending on the platform, kicking off a crisis within the company to protect precious ad revenue.
In response, Mr. Musk empowered my team to move more aggressively to remove hate speech across the platform — censoring more content, not less. Our actions worked: Before my departure, I shared data about Twitter’s enforcement of hateful conduct, showing that by some measures, Twitter was actually safer under Mr. Musk than it was before.
Marketers have not shied away from using the power of the purse: In the days following Mr. Musk’s acquisition, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, a key ad industry trade group, published an open call to Twitter to adhere to existing commitments to “brand safety.” It’s perhaps for this reason that Mr. Musk has said he wants to move away from ads as Twitter’s primary revenue source. But even if Mr. Musk is able to free Twitter from the influence of powerful advertisers, his path to unfettered speech is still not clear. Twitter remains bound by the laws and regulations of the countries in which it operates. Amid the spike in racial slurs on Twitter in the days after the acquisition, the European Union’s chief platform regulator posted on the site to remind Mr. Musk that in Europe, an unmoderated free-for-all won’t fly. In the United States, members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have raised concerns about the company’s recent actions.
Penalties for noncompliance with Europe’s Digital Services Act could total as much as 6 percent of the company’s annual revenue. In the United States, the F.T.C. has shown an increasing willingness to exact significant fines for noncompliance with its orders (like a blockbuster $5 billion fine imposed on Facebook in 2019). While Twitter has been publicly tight-lipped about how many people use the company’s mobile apps (rather than visit Twitter on a web browser), its 2021 annual report didn’t mince words: The company’s release of new products “is dependent upon and can be impacted by digital storefront operators” that decide the guidelines and enforce them, it reads. “Such review processes can be difficult to predict, and certain decisions may harm our business.”
“May harm our business” is an understatement. Failure to adhere to Apple’s and Google’s guidelines would be catastrophic, risking Twitter’s expulsion from their app stores and making it more difficult for billions of potential users to get Twitter’s services. This gives Apple and Google enormous power to shape the decisions Twitter makes.
Apple’s guidelines for developers are reasonable and plainly stated: They emphasize creating “a safe experience for users” and stress the importance of protecting children. The guidelines quote Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” quip, saying the company will ban apps that are “over the line.”
– The New York Times
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