The Washington Post

An agent of chaos

Mr. Musk is harming free expression on Twitter, not protecting it.


“VOX POPULI, Vox Dei,” Elon Musk tweeted after he posted the results of an unscientif­ic poll showing respondent­s favored allowing former president Donald Trump to return to Twitter. The Latin phrase, roughly translatin­g to “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” might be a poetic expression of democratic sentiment. But it does not reflect what Mr. Musk is doing with one of the world’s most influentia­l social media platforms.

So far, Mr. Musk has governed Twitter according to his whims. The chief executive’s polls supposedly express the will of the users — but many of those who engage regularly with his account are his die-hard supporters, aware of his preference­s and eager to see them enacted. This was true in the case of Mr. Trump, who so far has chosen not to return to using Twitter despite his account’s reinstatem­ent. And it was true in the case of Mr. Musk’s most recent query: “Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?”

Seventy-two percent said “yes” to this question, prompting Mr. Musk to announce that amnesty will begin this week. But determinin­g whether an account has “broken the law” — when the law varies by location and legal judgments often require an expert eye — will be a logistical nightmare. Twitter just gutted its staff in broad-scale layoffs; if the company reintroduc­es, en masse, a group of users previously found to have violated its terms of service, what happens if they flout the rules again? Are there any rules now? Perhaps Mr. Musk doesn’t believe that people engaging in hate and harassment should be barred from his site. Fine. But if that is the case, he should have revised the site’s policies, allowed accounts suspended under the old regime to appeal under the new one, and applied the revised terms of service going forward.

The approach Mr. Musk has instead chosen undermines the values he claims to cherish. Slashing the number of staff devoted to policing content can end up harming civil liberties: The Post reports that Twitter is drowning in nuisance posts, mostly pornograph­y, spewed onto the platform by accounts connected to the Chinese Communist Party, in an effort to obscure news of recent protests. Many of the analysts the company had to root out influence operations reportedly no longer work there.

Moreover, spotty rule enforcemen­t — or even knowingly permitting rule violations — will make Twitter’s decision-making more arbitrary and, therefore, less conducive to free expression. The most credible criticism of Mr. Trump’s removal after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrecti­on was that it was capricious, seeming to spring not from a violation of any specific policy but rather from a seat-of-the-pants reaction to offline developmen­ts. As things stand now, it is unclear what one can and cannot say on Twitter — or what Mr. Musk’s next poll might result in.

Those who believe in free expression on Twitter should be fighting for clear and consistent policies along with transparen­t enforcemen­t. Instead, Mr. Musk has brought chaos.

 ?? DADO RUVIC/REUTERS ?? The Twitter logo and chief executive Elon Musk are displayed through a magnifier in this photo illustrati­on taken Nov. 4.
DADO RUVIC/REUTERS The Twitter logo and chief executive Elon Musk are displayed through a magnifier in this photo illustrati­on taken Nov. 4.

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