Twitter and the Digital Town Square

April 27, 2022 Twitter Elon Musk Free Speech Lea Ypi Albania

In the wake of Elon Musk’s surprise $44 billion takeover of Twitter, there’s been a lot of speculation about the social network’s future. What stands out is the debate about free speech, doubtlessly because Musk himself put it on agenda when announcing the purchase:

Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Mr. Musk said in a statement announcing the deal. Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”

Many have found this statement ominous: Would Musk relax moderation policies, valuing free speech over the concerns of online harassment, doxxing, and death threats? Does the potential he talks about mean that anyone will be able to say anything on Twitter? The statement is (perhaps intentionally) vague, and for all we know, Musk’s ideas for the future of the platform might as well be.

What I do know is that this very idea of free speech on Twitter hinges on this analogy he uses: That Twitter is a digital town square”.

Even bearing in mind that all analogies are imperfect (otherwise they wouldn’t be analogies), this one strikes me as particularly wonky. There’s an obvious difference between a privately-owned social network and a public space: Somebody owns the former and literally requires memberships, while the latter is owned by society and is by extension open to all.

That means the analogy is really a sleigh of hand: It equates Twitter with something it quite obviously isn’t; it positions it as a public good rather than a private property. All to imply that it should fulfill some greater societal ideal—in this case the freedom of speech so conveniently celebrated by free speech absolutist” Elon Musk.

All that has a lot of people on the political right quite excited, because they’ve been equating moderation with censorship, and the rules of what’s effectively a private club with the restrictions of a dictatorship. Conservatives love to complain that they can’t say what they want and are pining for an ideologically neutral platform” that is also relevant—unlike the many conservative Twitter clones like Gab, Parler, and Truth Social.

Much of this debate comes from the United States, where the First Amendment protects the freedom of speech. Interestingly, that protection is widely misunderstood: The Atlantic rightfully points out that saying whatever you want on social media” isn’t what the constitutional right was ever meant to address:

Although the moderation policies of a private company don’t implicate traditional questions of free speech—that is, state restriction of speech—Twitter’s policies have played a prominent role in arguments about free speech” online, that is, how platforms decide what they want to host.

Equating Twitter with town square also conjures an image of public dialogue that truly happens in public—even though our world is so mediated that we’ve long stopped to meet on central squares to discuss the hot-button issues of the time. This antiquated image recalls faraway times to make a case for First Amendment protections, as though anyone would courageously use Twitter to call for the head of the king.

Lea Ypi’s book FreeLea Ypi’s book Free

This week I’ve been reading Free by Lea Ypi, the autobiography of a girl growing up in the final years of the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha in Albania. In a memorable passage, the author recounts her memory when, in front of neighbors, she blurts out her suspicion that her parents don’t share the state-mandated love for the regime:

We were going to have a photo of Uncle Enver on (the television)”; I interrupted cheerily amidst the noise. But they never want anything to do with Uncle Enver—they keep promising to put a photo there, and they never do it. I don’t think they like Uncle Enver, I said (…).

That changed the mood in our living room. Everyone froze. My mother, who had been laughing with Donika, and saying nice things about how much she missed the baklava Donika made, stopped speaking and looked intently at her, as if trying to guess her thoughts. Nini, who was in the little kitchen extension preparing more food, came out holding a bowl of washed cucumbers. Her hands were trembling. My father, who’d been helping himself to more olives and cheese from the shared platter, dropped the fork. For a short while, only the mosquitoes dancing around the lamp in our living room could be heard.

Mihal frowned. He then turned to me with an extremely serious, even severe look on his face. Come here,” he said, breaking the silence, urging me to sit on his lap. I thought you were a clever girl. I just praised you for how clever you were today. What you just said is not what clever girls say. It was a very stupid thing to say, the most stupid thing I have ever heard from you.” I blushed and felt the heat burning my cheeks. Your parents love Uncle Enver. They love the Party. You must never again say these stupid things to anyone. (…)”

Free speech is a complex matter, perhaps the biggest worm in the can of worms” of Musks plans. Where does it start, where does it end? The passage I quoted above might sound like whataboutism, but in light of this week’s reckoning with free speech I found it a useful reference of what true restrictions sound like—not only the moment of shock when the unspeakable is being spoken, but also when the neighbor, Mihal, keeps up the pretense, urging the child to never repeat such words.

It’s important why free speech regulations were enacted where they exist—and why the matter isn’t nearly as binary as absolutists” with their analogies try to present it.1

  1. This is a standard complaint of the right,” writes Rebecca Solnit: The real victim is the racist who has been called a racist, not the victim of his racism, the real oppression is to be impeded in your freedom to oppress.”↩︎

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