Elon Musk’s purchase of the social media behemoth Twitter, which appears probable, is raising questions about what the new management could mean to users and society at large. For Jewish tweeters and others, there are red flags.
The growth of social media of all varieties over the past 15 years has resulted in a massive change in the public dialogue. People have some ability to amplify or diminish the voices they do or do not want to hear, resulting in an unprecedented ability to self-select the information (or misinformation) to which we are exposed. The relative anonymity of the media has had additional harmful impacts, with racist, misogynistic, homophobic, antisemitic and other hateful statements being posted in volumes too massive to effectively police. The spike in antisemitic hate crimes we have seen in recent years is almost certainly a result, in part, of online antisemitism moving into the “real” world.
Since 2016, when Russian and other bad actors influenced the U.S. presidential election in favour of Donald Trump, some platforms, including Twitter, have been driven to address some of the most egregious content on their sites and abuse of the medium. Their efforts, however imperfect and inadequate, reflect an assumption that hate speech should not be accepted.
Musk’s planned purchase of Twitter (which has a number of hurdles yet to overcome) raises fears among some that his self-identification as a “free speech absolutist” may reverse the small strides Twitter has made in addressing hate speech.
If Musk, who is presumed to be the richest person on earth and who is known to be a micromanager, chooses to imprint on Twitter his vision of absolute free speech, we should expect the limited efforts to police the worst content will be diminished or eliminated.
Of course, Musk would not be the final arbiter of what is acceptable. He may be the richest person on earth and Twitter may be among the most powerful communications platforms ever known, but they are still subject to government oversight.
Among the challenges, of course, is that Twitter, like the rest of the internet, effectively knows no national boundaries. So, while the United States is lenient toward extreme speech, different countries take a different approach.
For example, Canada’s Parliament is considering two proposals to make it illegal to deny or diminish the historical facts of the Holocaust. Legislation like this – as well as existing hate crimes laws that prohibit the targeting of identifiable groups – will inevitably come up against transnational norms set by platforms like Twitter. Will social media platforms face endless legal challenges? Or will the sheer volume of offences make it impossible to challenge any but the most outrageous affronts?
Canadians have always had a different approach to free speech than our American cousins. Our Parliament, like many in Europe, recognizes limitations in the interest of national harmony. These often lead to contentious debates over where lines should be drawn. Introduce an anarchic, foreign-owned social media platform into the equation and these discussions become far more complicated.
These are difficult issues. In a perfect world, absolute free speech would be ideal, because, again in a perfect world, individuals themselves would balance their right to expression with their responsibilities as citizens of a pluralistic society. But, we do not live in a perfect world and some compulsion sadly seems necessary to prevent, say, outright incitement to murder or genocide.
Here, though, is something not difficult or complicated at all – we do not need legislation or philosophical debates around freedom in order to counter hate speech right now. In this space, over many years, we have argued that the best way to confront bad, or hateful, speech is not stifling that speech, but countering it with truth, compassion and decency. Silencing hatred (even if it were possible in the wired world) will not eliminate hatred. We are in a war of words, and more words, not fewer, should be our approach.
A magnificent case-in-point occurred in the past month.
After the student society of the University of British Columbia passed a resolution endorsing the boycott movement against Israel, Santa Ono, the president of the university, responded with a thoughtful statement condemning BDS.
Too often, destructive, hateful messages like anti-Israel boycott resolutions are met with silence, usually with the excuse that such resolutions or protests are legitimate expressions of free speech. Of course, they may well be. But this argument, which was used by UBC administrators and others in the past, misses the point. Free speech does not mean the right to have one’s opinions uncontested. As Ono’s statement makes clear, both sides have a right to have their voices heard. That is free speech.
At a time when too many campuses across North America are roiling with anti-Israel spectacles, the significance of a statement like Ono’s did not go unnoticed. In fact, the university president received a letter from another president. Isaac Herzog, the president of Israel, wrote a “Dear Santa” letter, thanking Ono for his unequivocal statement.
That Israel’s head of state would intervene to express gratitude for Ono’s statement is itself a statement of how serious the threats are from uncontested hate speech. But it also reminds us that we do not need legislation or courts to stand up – as individuals and as a community – against egregious attacks. Every person has a voice. Some use it to spread misinformation and hatred. Others use it for good.