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HOBBS: Looking For A Social Media Platform That Respects Free Speech? Don’t Look To Twitter

By  Jay Hobbs

If you haven’t already seen it, you’ll want to check out a recent interview between Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Wired magazine editor Nicholas Thompson.

Flagged online by MRC Newsbusters, the interview starts out with a bang — and it’s bad news for free speech on the platform Dorsey has pioneered, as well as the larger picture of social media platforms, where two-thirds of Americans are accessing their news every day.

At the outset of the interview, Dorsey is asked about a 2012 quote from then-Twitter UK General Manager Tony Wang, who quipped at the time that Twitter sees itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” Asked how he’s “evolved” on the issue in the six years since Wang’s quote, Dorsey’s backpedaling is worthy of a Pro Bowl cornerback — albeit in slow motion and with plenty of hemming and hawing in the process.

“Freedom of expression may adversely impact other fundamental human rights: such as privacy; such as physical security,” Dorsey said. “We believe we can only serve the public conversation, we can only stand for freedom of expression, if people feel safe to express themselves in the first place. We can only do that if they feel they are not being silenced.”

While there’s certainly no harm in Dorsey taking the privacy and physical security of his platform’s 336 million users into consideration, that hardly relates to Twitter’s viewpoint-related censorship — which disproportionately silences conservatives while allowing openly racist tweets from progressives like Sarah Jeong of The New York Times.

Not only that, but Twitter’s recent announcement that it is expanding its “hateful conduct policy” to include the category of “dehumanizing speech” may sound like a step toward civility, but it’s far more likely to add to the chaos created by Twitter’s ever-expansive toolkit of arbitrary controls. That much is clear from Wired’s coverage of the change, where Susan Benesch — whose research at The Dangerous Speech Project has played a key role in Twitter’s policy additions — cautions Twitter and other platforms against defining and enforcing “dehumanizing speech” policies too broadly.

With its track record of censoring only one side of the political spectrum, it’s hard to be optimistic about where Twitter’s changes might lead.

To his credit, Thompson follows up on the question. That’s where the hedging gives way to the truth: at Twitter, free speech is more of a punchline than a mission. Rather than free speech, “people feeling safe to express themselves” is a driving theme at Twitter.

“This quote around ‘free speech wing of the free speech party’ was never a mission of the company; it was never a descriptor of the company . . . It was a joke,” Dorsey said.

Thompson again followed up, pointing out that, while it may have been a running gag at Twitter headquarters, most Twitter users took it as public commitment to free speech. In fact, that’s still echoed in Twitter’s mission statement, which reads in part: “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.”

Dorsey’s answer, while providing some insight into the tension Twitter faces, falls far short of his company’s brand promise. In short, Twitter is toggling identities between existing as a platform that yields creative power “without barriers” and a bubble where feelings are elevated above free speech.

Of course, Twitter does have a role to play — in conjunction with law enforcement — in ensuring the physical safety and cyber security of its users, but that’s not what Dorsey has in mind, and that’s not the problem Twitter’s actions and policies are aimed at solving. Instead, as Twitter walks back its commitment to free speech, it’s only making it more difficult to engage in conversations that matter.

We live in a pluralistic society where, by design, we encounter ideas and points of view that conflict with our own. That’s why it’s essential that we tolerate and respect those who disagree with us, affording them the same opportunity to be heard that we want for ourselves.

Artificial controls from powerful social media companies will never hold the line on free speech and civility. That work falls to each of us, and as we wrap up Free Speech Week, it should start anew today.

Jay Hobbs is deputy director of media communications for Alliance Defending Freedom.

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