Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All

Writing in the Guardian last week, Carole Cadwalladr lamented the way in which Twitter catalyses and facilitates global bullying. This prompted a short exchange between me David Heinemann from Index on Censorship. We noted the betrayed promise of free speech for all that social media offers, and what—or rather, who—might solve the problem.
https://twitter.com/DBetzH/status/932304738284134400

I’ve been saying for years that ‘get a thicker skin’ is an inadequate response to the free speech challenges of our time #

Specifically, my ORGcon speech from a few years ago.

My response:

Well legally Twitter *is* a private space. But socially and culturally it’s clearly the agora. There seems to be no easy way to Square that Circle. # I think the only way out may be for mass adoption of an alternative social media platform, ideally something like Mastodon which is distributed, and which different communities can impose their own codes of conduct. #

But I assume what @carolecadwalla would ask (rightly, in my opinion) is why should the decent people all have to leave and go elsewhere? Why shouldn’t it be all the fuckwits and Trumps who find somewhere else to speak? # Note that the trolls and hate do profoundly effect Twitter’s brand and bottom line. They’ve lost investment as a result #

I guess it’s a subset of the issue of media plurality, the lack of which is a problem in most places. All these issues (hate speech, fake news) would be marginally less of a problem if there were more alternatives… # Indeed, it’s ironic that we’re worrying about this in relation to Twitter, when the power and influence of dead tree media (long regarded as toxic, too) is clearly undermined by social media #

I made some notes on this in my post ‘Constitutional coups and the decline of media influence.’

So maybe we should a) just have faith that another disruptor will come along to disrupt Twitter and Facebook; and b) support projects and startups seeking to achieve that disruption # And given that another aspect of the problem is that the dominant social media has been created by (to use modern parlance) The Bros, perhaps more diversity in tech leadership might result in better platforms with better algorithms and UX? #

https://twitter.com/DBetzH/status/932562776698048512

Yes, I worry about that too, but that just leads us to a Pascal’s Wager: If we have already fallen off the cliff then we’re screwed, so we all have to keeping working on this in the hope that it is not yet the case. It is encouraging to read that Tim Berners-Lee does not think it is too late.


The image at the top of this post is the Buffalo Jump at Wind Cave National Park. Tom Farrell / NPS

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