In his article ‘Twouble for Twitter: Elon Musk and the public square‘, author Jordan Guiao from the Centre for Responsible Technology states: “Twitter has become a central part of the public square, favoured by journalists and news junkies, unavoidable if you’re a politician or a public figure.”
And I agree with this statement. But what else has Twitter become?
In June of 2020, evolutionary biologist, Brett Weinstein, and others put forward a new non-partisan campaign group called Articles of Unity. The Articles of Unity proposed a highly novel and innovative bi-partisan political approach for the United States.
In short, it proposed to draft two candidates: one from the center-left, one from the center-right. Once elected, the President and his colleague from the other side of the aisle would govern as a team. All decisions and appointments would be made jointly in the interests of the American public.
When they could not reach agreement, or when a decision did not allow for consultation, the President would decide independently. After the next election, the candidates would swap and the other would be President.
So the idea was a long-shot. But where the status quo persists or is entrenched in relation to a specific issue, it’s only long-shot ideas that stand a chance of moving the issue forward.
Kickstarting the electric car industry with an electric sports car, building reusable booster rockets, or creating solar panel tiles were also long-shot ideas. So were the ideas that it was, in fact, Hunter Biden’s laptop was an issue, or that Covid could have leaked from a lab, just to bring things a little closer to home.
Articles of Unity was an idea that could have worked by appealing to the centre-left and centre-right, which still represents the majority of Americans and perhaps the majority of people.
It may have provided a practical political solution to the broken lines of communication of the partisan divide or at the very least, inspired people toward conversation with others of different political viewpoints.
Here’s what happened next. Mainstream media commentators started picking up the movement. A trend emerged on the final night of the Republican National Convention. The hashtag #JustSayNoToDonaldAndJoe went viral.
The Unity plan started to accelerate on Twitter. Then it was squashed by Twitter, censored out of existence. The @ArticlesOfUnity twitter account was suspended.
Needless to say, no substantive explanation was provided to The Articles of Unity team and the censors at Twitter effectively squashed this new possibility for a novel political coming together.
This is a first consequence of censorship – that good ideas, and in some cases true innovation, are squashed out of existence. But the insidious effects of censorship are much more pervasive.
- The creation of the ultimate in-group and out-group. Nothing does more than censorship to magnify our tribal instincts
- Conspiracy theories flourish, because they are not debated and therefore readily resisted by logical rebuttal
- Solutions that require wide-ranging and often-times long-shot inputs and viewpoints are not reached
- Unbalanced presentation of debates and arguments which impedes community sense-making
- Incorrect perceptions about how societies or groups of people feel or think about things which can lead to fear, division, resentment, discrimination and hatred
- Corruption is advanced, unhindered. Whether they take the form of a political party, a cause-based organisation, a topical Facebook group or a corporate whistleblower, we gain new perspectives about the trustworthiness of people in power and the nature of their actions from those who are not willing to conform. However, these non-violent non-conformists only really have one weapon – speech. Take this away, and we lose information and insights and the corruption remains unchecked
- The flourishing of fundamentalist ideologies and religious institutions, such as, race and gender essentialist (woke) movements and some Christian and Islamic movements. Censorship achieves this by removing relevant information from the table and thereby impeding the multifactorial or multivariate sense-making required to see through such fundamentalism
- The personalities we should really fear. Repression of what one wishes to communicate causes a bottling up of unexpressed thoughts. This is then stirred in with social exclusion and the absence of counter-balancing viewpoints to make a perfect recipe for resentment and disgust. Since the pressure relief valve of verbal or written expression is shut-off, the pressure simply continues to build up until, finally, either an implosion or an explosion occurs
This is why, for many generations in the West, we’ve been willing to pay the price for free speech. We’ve been willing to pay the price at a state level, with reference to the meaning of free speech in the US constitution and law, and Australian case law which is limited to political free speech.
Importantly, however, since the Enlightenment, we’ve been willing to pay the price at a societal level. We’ve agreed that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and we make heroes of whistleblowers.
This cultural norm has played itself out across corporate media, community organisations and workplaces for generations, well at least until recently.
Yes, free speech exposes both – us in our human condition, and us to the human condition of others. It can be nasty, bitter, tit-for-tat, manipulative and ego-driven. It can result in ideas that, in a final conclusion, are misinformation, flourishing for a time – before dying a natural death to the truth.
It can hurt our feelings and the feelings of others we care about. It can even cause us to question our identity. However, that’s a price worth paying.
Free speech is, at its heart, the collective concession the West is willing to make to place our perception of truth, in all its flaws and inconsistencies, on the table. And everyone else does the same thing. And we look at their perception of the truth and we look at our perception of the truth and we figure out, sometimes alone, sometimes together, how we will step forward with our lives.
In this way, free speech is the best long-term vaccine we have against almost everything we fear from our fellow human beings. But are we going to ignore the prescription, fear the needle or step forward into the unknown and embrace the sense-making process?
Returning to Jordan Guiao’s article, I want to address what appears to be a pretty petty perspective on Elon Musk’s character. When his words and actions are viewed objectively, it is easy to see Elon’s outlook is highly altruistic.
If it’s people’s words that most concern Jordan, I challenge him to find a single interview of Elon’s where his single-minded obsession with the preservation and progress of humanity are not abundantly heartfelt and clear. Any other conclusion could only be described as deeply cynical.
This being said, true altruism is not proven by what people say but by what people do.
With the early exceptions of Zip2 and Paypal, none of Musk’s ventures are the types of businesses that someone primarily motivated by financial gain would be found. As ventures, they were simply far too risky – they were quintessential long shots.
It has been widely reported how Elon put his wealth on the line to see them through to success. There was no electric car industry when Elon started Tesla. Reusable rockets? That was only theory until he started SpaceX.
Elon Musk’s entrepreneurship has been and remains, amongst other things, highly altruistic.
The market recognised in its valuation that Twitter needed saving. It had broken the cultural agreement we have in the West not to censor. Many, including myself, had left the platform for that reason. Musk jumped on the opportunity, and good for him.
A new chapter has now opened and it is the hope of every open-minded person that Musk will, as promised, embed the ideals of freedom of speech into the foundations of Twitter.
This could be done by aligning the content moderation policy with first amendment case law, to whatever extent is determined practicable. Of course, getting rid of the bots first by requiring users to be identified, as Elon has indicated will take place, will reduce the burden of enforcing such policies.
Beyond this, I hope that Twitter creates a transparent and auditable architecture, including the key algorithms, to restore trust in this important public square. I, for one, don’t doubt Musk will do it.
Chris Baxter is Chairman of Baxter IP Patent and Trademark Attorney’s and is an active participant as an investor and advisor in Australia’s innovation ecosystem.
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