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Lee Wolverton

Lee Wolverton

Those hearkening for the cries of tycoons seeking advice on what to do with whatever their billions have bought are likely to hear only crickets.

Nonetheless, here follows an unsolicited suggestion for Elon Musk, proud owner of Twitter: Kill it. Hurl it off a cliff. Send it on a one-way trip to space. Send the other social media with it.

Of course, one does not spend $44 billion, including $21 billion in personal equity, on a thing to kill it. Musk thinks he can fix it, but the rub is in what precisely fixing it means. This is what the self-proclaimed “technoking” said:

“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. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”

Humans and editors, the latter being variations of the former, long to be authenticated, and, naturally, everyone is rooting against the spam bots. On the question of free speech being the bedrock of a functioning democracy and so on, there is no question.

Musk is of a view held by more than a few that Twitter’s recent attempts at content moderation have gone too far, that speech needs to be freer to flow, absent platform scolds. Progressives view social media platforms as partly culpable for allowing the promulgation of right-wing bilge, from anti-vaccination propaganda to white supremacy. This has prompted platforms to block content with increased frequency. To Musk and others’ mind, they’re squelching free speech.

This is not a trifling concern. Newspapers have a longstanding advocacy of the First Amendment’s free speech protections. But newspapers also have responsibilities that social media utterly lack, thanks to freedom from liability afforded them under a federal provision known as Section 230.

While Musk refers to a digital town square, newspapers long have provided on their opinion pages a forum for debate that is another kind of metaphorical town square. The difference in newspaper opinion pages and the digital town hall in which Twitter and others operate is that there is no incentive, aside from mere public pressure, for Twitter or anyone else to place the solitary limit of truth on speech.

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Newspapers are liable for whatever is printed on their pages or websites. If a letter writer, for example, asserts an objective fact that is objectively false and that statement harms the reputation of its object, the newspaper could be held liable in a defamation claim. The truth is the greatest defense. That’s a powerful incentive for newspapers to ensure the facts are right.

Social media have no such incentive. So, if a rabble of conspiracy theorists write a letter to their local newspaper to claim a school shooting was staged, the newspaper is incentivized to reject that letter. Parents wrongly accused of contriving the deaths of their children might sue. But that same rabble can take to social media and spout the same rubbish with impunity.

In exchange for this freedom from liability, social media have wrought the disintegration of civil discourse in America. They’ve provided a platform for debate while removing the foundation of reason. It’s not a digital town square. It’s a digital Tiananmen Square, where conspiracists, supremacists, propagandists, sophists and damn liars treat truth as a dissident.

That a platform offering nothing but the platform itself is somehow worth $44 billion is telling. Its value is derived from the fact that, while bearing no legal responsibilities, it also is tracking its users’ every move, feeding data to algorithms to lure advertisers and drive revenue. It’s all reward and no risk, at the expense of a country’s soul.

The fix needed is liability. Lift the Section 230 provision and allow the platforms to be sued for defamatory content posted there. That would produce the opposite of the looser content moderation Musk envisions. It would produce in its place responsibility. It’s the least we ought to expect from one giving people a means to speak to the world.

Let social media follow the same rules we do in the newspaper business. We’ll generally give you leave to say as you please, provided the facts you state are verifiably true.

Of course, Musk knows what too many of you prefer, to say what you wish absent restraint. Loosening content restrictions likely will make Twitter more profitable, which is Musk’s primary concern. After all, he didn’t buy the thing to kill it. He bought the thing to make a killing off it. That sound you hear is coins in the coffer ringing.

Lee Wolverton is the vice president of news and executive editor of HD Media. He can be reached at 304-348-4802 or lwolverton@hdmediallc


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