Marc Burrows, The Independent
Elon Musk bought Twitter because of free speech. That’s been his number one stated reason, all along, for a business decision that many, many people thought was certifiably bonkers and has looked increasingly more so as time has past. He said he did it to “help humanity, whom I love”, and give the people the “digital town square” they deserved. The money was not the issue. Which is probably for the best, because ad sales have plunged by almost 60 per cent, subscriptions have not taken off and the interest on his loans is estimated at over a billion dollars a year.
Gifting the human race an open debate platform might sound like a commendable way to lose your position as the world’s richest man, if it hadn’t meant interpreting “freedom of speech” as “allowing people to be absolutely awful”. Hate speech on Twitter has risen in the last six months, and Musk’s decision to give verified check marks to and boost impressions for anyone who pays for a Twitter Blue subscription has seemingly enabled the very worst of online trolls to post with impunity. Another study found that 99% of hate speech posted by Twitter Blue users was allowed to stay on the platform.
That’s awful, but if you were being charitable you could say it’s just the way the cookie crumbles. “Freedom of speech” includes “freedom to be a jerk”. It doesn’t mean freedom of consequences, and there’s nothing stopping offended parties from blocking someone who upsets them. That’s freedom too: the freedom to ignore people you don’t like if you don’t want to listen to them. The freedom to sculpt your own experience on a website built around the idea of choosing who to follow. The freedom to stay within your bubble, should you so wish it.
Possibly not for much longer. Responding to a comment this week Musk said that he’s considering removing the ability to block accounts entirely, making the “mute” function more powerful instead. This is a terrible idea. This is the opposite of freedom. The equation is not complicated — Changes made to the algorithm means that verified accounts will appear in your feed more often, whether you follow them or not. And since verified accounts can post hate speech without consequence; get ready to get hate speech in your feed that you have no choice but to accept.
The previous iteration of Twitter didn’t always get it right, but it was making great strides in taking it’s responsibilities seriously and launching products with user safety firmly in mind. Over the last few years Twitter users have gained the ability to untag themselves, mute individual conversations and control who can reply to their Tweets, on top of more familiar functions like blocking accounts. It created a safer, more pleasant environment — an online experience geared to your preferences that also tried to shield you from bullying and triggering, especially for vulnerable people. The “Block” function was the weapon of last resort.
You can’t underestimate the impact trolling can have on someone. Any woman with an outspoken political opinion will quickly get a barrage of abuse and insults. The block option is often the only way to control those conversations.
It’s probably not a coincidence that a lot of Twitter users have been blocking verified accounts on sight recently in order to silence some of the worst voices. It’s helped drag timelines back into something of the shape they had a this time last year. It’s mocking Musk’s vision, and there is nothing this thin-skinned “space Karen” hates more than being undermined.
Scrapping blocks is an act of ultimate hypocrisy that betrays Musk’s true motivation in buying Twitter; not to promote freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to ignore, the freedom to not see, but to remake his favourite internet hole in his own image: loud, obnoxious and always demanding you pay him attention.
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