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Twitter Lost Its Way On Free Speech Right When Donald Trump Entered National Politics

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Image Creditmagerleagues/Flickr

In the wake of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, many commentators bemoaned Musk’s promises to end censorship on the platform. In so doing, these writers have spun a revisionist narrative. It alleges that, after 2016, Twitter nobly attempted to engage in responsible, politically neutral “content moderation” aimed narrowly at preventing threats and harassment. But now, supposedly, Musk’s purchase threatens to undo the platform’s “progress” in enhancing “user safety” and promoting civility.

This narrative, however, is baseless. In reality, Twitter’s practices and public statements on free speech changed dramatically around 2016, from a position of stringently defending the free speech rights of its users to bemoaning the entire concept. Indeed, Twitter’s post-2016 efforts at “content moderation” have been shot through with political bias, both at the policy and enforcement level.

Until about five years ago, Twitter took a nearly absolutist position in defending the free expression of its users and disavowing censorship of any sort — one similar to the position taken by Musk today. At the policy level, Twitter promised its users that “we do not actively monitor user’s content and will not censor user content, except in limited circumstances” such as impersonation, violation of trademark or copyright, or “direct, specific threats of violence against others.”

Twitter’s public statements were likewise unequivocal. In 2012, Twitter’s then-vice president declared, “We are the free speech wing of the free speech party.” Twitter’s chief legal officer stated that same year, “We should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is.”

Twitter fought compliance with even criminal subpoenas seeking user posts, and The New York Times said the company “has deftly built something of a reputation for protecting free speech, even unpopular speech.” The Times praised Twitter for sticking to its “principles,” noting that “other companies” like Yahoo and Google had “repeatedly stumbled on issues of free speech and privacy,” such as by compromising user anonymity, which “can endanger dissidents and others with unpopular opinions.”

The Shift Began in Late 2015

Twitter’s rhetoric began to change, however, in late 2015. In December 2015, Twitter unveiled its first “hateful conduct policy,” prohibiting users from “promot[ing] violence against or directly attack[ing] or threaten[ing] other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.” Twitter emphasized that it still sought to promote freedom of speech, but that abuse and harassment can prevent people from speaking out.

It soon became clear, however, that Twitter’s new censorship efforts would be slanted against conservatives. On February 9, 2016, Twitter announced it was creating the “Trust and Safety Council,” which it billed as “a new and foundational part of our strategy to ensure that people feel safe expressing themselves on Twitter.” The council included left-wing groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and Feminist Frequency, but no free speech advocates or right-of-center voices.

In 2017 and again in 2018, Twitter made major additions to its hateful content policy. Twitter’s 2018 revision, for example, tripled the policy in length and explicitly built in political bias by including a controversial ban against “misgendering,” which was eventually used to censor The Babylon Bee and Tucker Carlson. This new policy effectively censored the expression of the widely held political viewpoint that an individual’s gender is determined by his sex at birth.

The promulgation of new policies came with the permanent banning of many prominent right-wing accounts but of virtually no liberals. Indeed, Twitter’s account bans targeted conservatives almost exclusively. Of the 22 prominent individuals permanently banned by Twitter between 2015 and early 2019, 21 were supporters of Donald Trump.

Disavowing Neutrality and Free Speech

Beginning in 2017, amid the fallout from Brexit and Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, Twitter began to publicly disavow its past defense of free speech. Sinead McSweeney, a Twitter vice president, testified before British Parliament in December 2017, “I look back over last five and a half years, and the answers I would have given to some of these questions five years ago were very different.”

Back then, she explained, “Twitter was in a place where it believed the most effective antidote to bad speech was good speech. It was very much a John Stuart Mill-style philosophy.” But the company had “realized the world we live in has changed. We’ve had to go on a journey with it, and we’ve realized it’s no longer possible to stand up for all speech in the hopes society will become a better place because racism will be challenged, or homophobia challenged, or extremism will be challenged.”

Similarly, Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, declared in early 2019, “I don’t believe that we can afford to take a neutral stance anymore. I don’t believe that we should optimize for neutrality.”

Twitter’s bias grew even more pronounced after 2019. It culminated in Twitter’s coordinated suppression of reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop just before the 2020 election, which Dorsey later admitted was “wrong,” and its ban of President Trump in January 2021. The latter was ostensibly for Trump’s comment that he would not attend President Biden’s inauguration, which Twitter characterized  (absurdly) as a “glorification of violence that could inspire others to replicate violent acts.”

In short, Twitter’s stepped-up efforts at “content moderation” post-2016 were not neutral attempts to purge the platform of abuse. Instead, they were nakedly political efforts to control public discourse by selectively banning viewpoints, users, and news articles.

And the company’s post-2016 censorship efforts marked an open break with the company’s previous vigorous defense of free speech as its core value. Indeed, it was under the banner of “free speech” that Twitter at first grew into an unprecedented public forum for global communication and attracted a critical mass of users.

Twitter’s recent struggles to attract new users and revenue, and its subsequent purchase by Musk, reflect justified frustration at heavy-handed and biased censorship practices — not an unfortunate break with a noble experiment in “content moderation.”