Buying Twitter, Elon Musk Will Face Reality of His Free-Speech Talk

“We need to protect freedom of speech in order to make our democracy work,” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “But there is a lot of distance to cover from that premise to the kinds of decisions that social media companies have to make every day.”

Almost no place on the internet or in the physical world is a zone of absolute free expression. The challenge of online expression is the challenge of expression, period, with questions that have few simple answers: When is more speech better, and when is it worse? And who gets to decide?

In countries with strong courts, civic groups and news media to hold politicians accountable, it may be relatively benign when elected leaders trash talk their opponents online. But in countries such as Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Somalia, government leaders have weaponized social media to subject their critics to relentless verbal harassment, to spread lies that go mostly unchecked or to incite ethnic violence.

If Twitter wants to pull back from moderating speech on its site, will people be less willing to hang out where they might be harassed by those who disagree with them and swamped by pitches for cryptocurrency, fake Gucci handbags or pornography?

The 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit vote that same year gave Silicon Valley executives, U.S. elected officials and the public a peek into what can go wrong when social media companies opt not to wade too deeply into what people say on their sites. Russian propagandists amplified the views of deeply divided Americans and Britons, further polarizing the electorate.

During Mr. Trump’s presidency — particularly in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic and then as Mr. Trump and his supporters spread false claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election — Twitter, Facebook and YouTube changed their tune about the role they played in fanning anger, lies, distortions and division that left some people feeling exhausted and cynical about the world around them.

Twitter and Facebook, pressured at times by their employees, took more steps to pull down or label posts that might break their rules against false information and tinkered with computer systems to suppress viral lies from spreading far and fast. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube also kicked Mr. Trump off their platforms after the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021.

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