There once was a feller named Elon

For Twitter he just made a deal on

Is he free speech’s savior

Or is his behavior

Just something we’ll never agree on?

Social media are the best source of accurate news for Russians trying to understand what’s really going on in Ukraine.

Social media are also the best source of utterly false propaganda for Americans looking for talking points about the conflict in Ukraine they can use to justify their admiration for Vladmir Putin.

Before we get all worked up about Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition and plans to take it private, let’s take a deep breath and de-murkify some aspects of the situation that, to my lay-person’s eyes at least, are in desperate need of de-murkification.

Does Twitter engage in censorship?

No. Censorship is something governments do. Twitter is a business, not a government.

Does Twitter currently engage in excessive editorial control?

This isn’t a yes-no question. It’s a how-much question.

The more editorial control Twitter exerts over the content published on it, the more it resembles a publisher rather than a platform. Oversimplifying, publishers are responsible for the content they publish. Platforms aren’t responsible for the content published on them. But it’s a continuum, not a binary categorization.

Twitter exerts some editorial control over the content posted on it (see The Twitter rules: safety, privacy, authenticity, and more ).

That control doesn’t extend to requiring that what’s posted on it is true, though, so to my eyes it’s still more platform than publisher. Your retinas might reach a different conclusion.

Do government efforts to regulate Twitter’s content constitute censorship?

That depends which content.

Content posted by individual human beings is, and (in my not-very-humble opinion) should be protected by the First Amendment. This also means it’s governed by the First Amendment’s well-established boundaries. Defamation, endangerment, and incitement to violence are as illegal on Twitter as when yelled out by an angry person standing on a soapbox in Central Park.

Content posted by corporations, in contrast, isn’t (or at least, shouldn’t be) protected by the First Amendment. Supreme Court rulings that “corporations are people too” notwithstanding, that’s still a legal fiction. Everything corporations do is legally subject to regulation, because forming a corporation is a privilege, not a right.

The most obvious and clear-cut example of legitimate regulation of corporate speech is false advertising. A company that publishes falsehoods about its products is violating the law.

As for content posted by ‘bots, ‘bots aren’t persons. They have no constitutional rights of any kind, whether deployed by corporations, governments, or autonomously (a terrifying thought).

Does government regulation of “the algorithm” constitute censorship?

No, and with all due deference to the late, great Frank Zappa, this, not the apostrophe, is the crux of the biscuit.

First of all, the technology social media concerns use is the polar opposite of an algorithm. Algorithms apply known rules to turn their inputs into outputs. Social media use neural networks, and as is well known, even the neural networks themselves don’t “know” how they reach their conclusions.

Social media neural networks are, that is, both autonomous and oblivious. Not a good combination.

Of greater significance, the act of deciding which content to bring to subscribers’ attention, whether it’s through the use of true algorithms, neural network “algorithms,” or an editorial committee composed of actual human beings, pushes social media like Twitter and Facebook closer to the publisher end of the platform / publisher continuum.

How about Section 230?

Section 230 was an attempt to define any and all internet services that democratize content creation as platforms. It was crafted in a simpler, algorithm-free time (1996) and needs replacing. Finding even two people who agree on what to replace it with, though, is a challenge.

Bob’s last word: If I was a predicting kind of guy, I’d go along with everyone else commenting about this subject: Musk will take a laissez faire approach to editorial control, including but not limited to removing restrictions on who is allowed to publish on Twitter.

Corrected from the original:

That would move it much closer to being publisher than platform.

And Musk will have a hard enough time keeping that from happening without tearing out the so-called algorithms Tweetsters rely on to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

That would move it closer to being platform than publisher.

But Musk will have a hard time maintaining platform status without tearing out the so-called algorithms Tweetsters rely on to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

If past behavior predicts future grousing, Musk won’t have much patience with the legal need to thread this metaphorical needle.

Bob’s sales pitch: Reserve May 11th, 2:40pm CST, when I engage with the estimable Roger Grimes in The Great Quantum Debate: Is There a Role in Business Yet? as part of CIO’s Future of Data Summit. You can register for the summit here. I predict you’ll find it even more informative than your average Tweet.