It finally happened. After months of legal wrangling, Twitter fell. All hail King Elon; “the bird is released”. The executives running the show have been defenestrated, including CEO Parag Agrawal and Chief Security Officer Vijaya Gadda. Around the virtual waterhole, nervous packs of activists nervously watch the ground shake; Donald Trump, Twitter’s biggest beast is about to make a comeback. And aren’t moans glorious? Well yes, but.
Basing your policy on things your opponents don’t like is an easy trap to fall into. Conservatism is not a negative image of progressivism, but an alternative philosophical perspective with its own positive view of what the world should look like. A movement based solely on reaction to a cause will find itself defined by it, unable to escape the ideological limitations it imposes, and doomed to failure.
That said, the hyperbole surrounding the takeover has been staggering. “It feels like the gates of hell have opened on this site tonight,” said the Washington Postit is Taylor Lorenz. “A Musk-owned Twitter could be disastrous for women and marginalized communities already facing targeted abuse and harassment on the platform,” said Christopher Bouzy of Bot Sentinel, a bot detection system.
In light of this reaction, it’s worth taking a step back and remembering how modest the goals set by Musk actually are. Musk believes that Twitter should serve as a “common digital public square,” where debate flourishes between left and right, bringing people together to discuss topics of interest. That doesn’t mean an entirely unmoderated conversation (“a free-for-all hellscape,” in Musk’s words). That doesn’t mean entrusting the website to the political right alone; it would defeat the whole purpose of a digital public square. There are already right- or left-only apps that provide this service. All Musk is proposing is that Twitter take its thumb off the scales. And that’s exactly why some progressives are furious.
The views of some on the left on Twitter have long been contradictory. At the same time, it was just another private company fully licensed to ban whoever it wanted and censor speech however it pleased, and also a vital part of our democracy unique in its ability to shape political discourse. That these two concepts did not fit together was not a problem, as long as the prohibitions and the censorship favored the formation of this discourse in a way useful to the progressive project. If Musk manages to reshape the platform to his liking, this advantage will be removed. Progressive ideas will have to engage in criticism without being able to simply silence arguments they find too difficult to process.
That is, unless they find another way. Deprived of the ability to outsource censorship to Silicon Valley, politicians can simply smuggle it into national law. Britain’s own online safety bill – with its ‘harmful but legal’ provisions and attempting to outlaw “psychological harm” – is just one example of the many ways even so-called conservative governments can find themselves locked into progressive values.
This political battle will likely prove a far more difficult challenge than reshaping Twitter’s internal culture. Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, responded to Elon’s announcement by reminding him that “in Europe the bird will fly according to our (EU) rules”, referring to new laws aimed at to outlaw disinformation, hate speech and extremism – and wield a broad and chilling effect on speech in the process. If Musk is serious about his Digital Commons, his next step may need to be a more overt attempt to influence policy.