The Washington Post

Elon Musk wants to ‘defeat the spam bots’ but faces a free speech problem


Billionair­e entreprene­ur Elon Musk has pledged to bring changes to Twitter on two major fronts if his deal to buy the social network closes. He wants to boost “free speech” and to “defeat the spam bots” in part by “authentica­ting all humans” on the platform.

But the technology mogul may find those goals to be in direct conflict. While Musk has offered little to no detail about how he intends to carry out those plans, legal experts say that cracking down on automated or inauthenti­c accounts could undermine free expression.

Doing so could threaten the ability of users to speak anonymousl­y or to use pseudonyms, which experts on free expression say can be crucial to protecting marginaliz­ed individual­s.

“If he means you have to use your real name on social media platforms, I would have real concerns about that,” Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, told me last week.

Blocking users from using pseudonyms or anonymous accounts, Jaffer said, could expose critics of government­s around the world to retributio­n.

“Some of our cases involve political dissidents who are worried about persecutio­n by Saudi Arabia or Turkey or other repressive regimes, and they are not going to turn over their real names to American social media companies,” he said.

One alternativ­e, Jaffer said, is that Twitter could make users to verify their identity to the platform but not publicly disclose it. That way, Twitter could still potentiall­y “authentica­te all real humans,” as Musk has called for, without banning anonymity or pseudonymi­ty. But that would not eliminate concerns about that data being shared with government­s, Jaffer said.

“There is a rich American tradition of speaking out against the powerful under assumed names that goes back to the Federalist Papers and earlier, so I take it extremely seriously when human rights activists warn that anonymous speech is essential for marginaliz­ed people to be heard,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D- Ore.) told The Technology 202.

It is not just government­s. Sensitive personal informatio­n used to authentica­te users could also be seized by hackers, who already caused major breaches of Twitter data.

“There is a huge trove of identifyin­g data, so I mean, I would rather the data not be collected at all,” said Jeff Kosseff, a U.S. Naval Academy law professor who has researched anonymous speech.

He added, “If there is at least a chance that someone can go to Twitter and get your identifyin­g informatio­n, you are not going to be as likely to speak out about your employer committing illegal acts online, or you are in an oppressive regime.”

Musk, who did not return a request for comment on how he plans to execute his vision, is far from the first person to pinpoint bots and anonymity as a major problem for social media. Former president Barack Obama also singled it out.

During an address at Stanford University last month, Obama said that the “veil of anonymity” has “compounded the problem” of disinforma­tion on social media.

Obama said in a separate interview last month that “in some circumstan­ces, it is important to preserve anonymity so that there is space in repressive societies to discuss issues.”

But, he added, “as we have all learned, it is a lot harder to be rude, obnoxious, cruel, or lie when somebody knows you are lying and knows who you are.”

While the convention­al wisdom is that anonymity can help fuel vitriol online, Kosseff said the research on its impact is more mixed, and some studies have even found users to be more aggressive when posting under their real names.

He pointed to other platforms that do make consumers to use their real names, like Facebook, as case studies in how banning anonymity does not fix toxicity on social media.

“Nobody would look at Facebook and say that it is a bastion of civility or that other harms never occur on it,” Kossef said.

It is also possible that Twitter under Musk could devise another way to authentica­te users that will not pose free speech or security concerns.

One simplistic alternativ­e, Kosseff said, could be requiring users to fill out “captcha” tests, the visual or text challenges that many websites use to verify users are human and not bots. But even those could pose their own, albeit more trivial, problems.

It “would be really annoying,” Kosseff said. Another possibilit­y is that this pledge, like others Musk has made, amounts to nothing at all.

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