The tizzy over free speech on Twitter

With the un-banning of accounts cancelled by the previous regime, Elon Musk believed he struck for free speech over cancel culture. And then, Kanye West went on a Twitter rampage again

Harini CalamurUpdated: Friday, December 02, 2022, 11:43 PM IST
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Elon Musk bought Twitter a month ago and ever since then, it seems like a free-for-all slugfest. Mr Musk conducted public polls to restore the accounts of many, including former US President Donald Trump, American rapper Kanye West, and Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Mr Trump was banned after the attempted coup in the US following the elections that he lost, Mr West for an anti-Semitic tirade and Mr Peterson was banned for anti-transgender comments. Also reinstated was the account of the comedian Kathy Griffin who impersonated Mr Musk.

The un-banned accounts are primarily extreme right-wing accounts, who poked fun at people from minority groups. It is immaterial here whether those minorities were ethnic, religious or sexual; whether they were gay, straight or trans. They were banned by the older regime at Twitter. Also banned were deniers — those who denied the Holocaust, those who denied vaccine efficiency, those who denied that sexuality was a spectrum. Many of these accounts had massive followers, and often these accounts triggered those who were most vulnerable to bullying.

While Twitter and other social networks were great at ensuring that the audiences in their countries were not triggered by such obnoxious behaviour; they were rather more circumspect when it came to other geographies — especially countries like India. Here, they were very comfortable allowing hate speech, bullying and mob-like behaviour, increasing time spent on the platform. And, when taken to task, they would fall back on the old defence in the U.S., of following the guidelines of the First Amendment.

The weaponisation of the First Amendment in the United States is not new. Amongst the earliest uses of it was to legalise porn as “freedom of expression”. While child porn and obscenity are still illegal, most other forms of pornography including X-rated films are legal in the USA, enjoying protection of the law. These battles were not won by little people — people like you and me — but corporate media that saw great potential in the commercial exploitation of the demand for porn.

In the early days of the internet, there was a clear-cut demarcation between sites that were no-holds-barred and had zero moderation, and those which did. Sites that had zero moderation were on the fringe, while moderated sites that followed a modicum of civilised behaviour were the mainstay. All that changed with the coming in of Web 2.0, that enabled sharing, social media, and responsive design. Responsive design allowed readability on your phone, and meant that you no longer had to be seated at your computer to navigate the web. Sharing allowed you to share media — images, videos, jokes, memes, false news, true news — with your friends, family and strangers. And social media became the medium on which you shared. Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter reigned. And the American interpretation of free speech became the catalyst allowing the spread of hate, lies, discord and distrust to increase engagement and profits.

As networks grew and matured, the clamour over the weaponisation of free speech grew. What constitutes free speech and what constitutes hate speech is a debate that is still on. Is poking fun at minority communities’ free speech or hate speech? Is spreading the news that vaccines cause diseases free speech? Is it all right to ask if trans women are women or men? Or to ask if immigrants citizens are foreigners? Is it ok to campaign for sedition? While most of us may agree that these views are obnoxious, the question is, are they illegal? And if they are not illegal in the nation in which the comment took place,then can you curtail free speech?

When Mr Musk took over Twitter, he stated that he wanted to restore free speech which was being curtailed by “culture wars”. These wars are wars of ideology, that define what is acceptable and what is not. For the last 20-odd years, across the world there has been a pitched battle between the right and the left on how society should be structured. The right believes that societies have moved too far down the path of individual liberties and rights, and this is threatening the very basis of society. The left on the other hand believes that the inherent patriarchy and elitism of societies is still trampling the rights of minorities — be they sexual, ethnic, religious, caste, or intersectional — and this needs to end.

For the last five years or so, it seemed that the left was winning this culture war and defining what was acceptable and what was not, cancelling people who would not adhere to their definition of social justice — at least in the west. That came to an end with Mr Musk buying Twitter.

With the un-banning of accounts cancelled by the previous regime, Mr Musk believed he struck for free speech over cancel culture. And then, Kanye West went on a Twitter rampage again, attacking Jewish people with hate-filled tweets, even posting an image that combined the Nazi swastika with the Star of David. Mr Musk, like others, had no choice – “I tried my best” he tweeted as he banned Mr West.

Absolute Free Speech is a great ideal, but in reality there is no such thing. There are always filters — societal, familial, political. There are things you just should not and cannot say. And maybe if Twitter (and other social networks) remembered that, the world might be a less polarised place.

The writer works at the intersecton of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur

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