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What Elon Musk's critics on free speech can learn from the fallout over Ye's anti-Semitism
Corporate repudiation of controversial rapper and songwriter shows system can correct itself without content moderation
Amid new anxieties (if not hyperventilation) about Elon Musk's new acquisition of Twitter opening the door to free speech in dangerous ways, another development occurring simultaneously in the news — the rapper formerly known as Kanye West being repudiated by corporate sponsors for anti-Semitic remarks — provides an important reminder to those critics the system is fully capable of correcting itself.
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The fallout over Ye's anti-Semitic comments on social media demonstrates the effectiveness of a free-speech system without the need for third-party oversight deciding what can and cannot be said based on potentially biased principles, as well as the recognition the appropriate response to offensive or misinformed speech is, simply, more speech to repudiate that. That’s an approach Musk may well apply to Twitter upon his acquisition of the company.
Ye’s remarks aren't necessary to repeat here or recognize other than to say they weren't not only anti-Semitic, but nonsensical and violent. An early domino to fall against him: Adidas severed its years-long relationship with Ye after having collaborated in marketing the Yeezy brand footwear and apparel. According to Forbes, the deal accounted for $1.5 billion of Ye's net worth and was such a blow to his finances it effectively ended his status as a billionaire. Other companies, Gap and then Foot Locker, soon after signaled they would immediately remove Yeezy products from store shelves, but they were just part of a long list of companies announcing they'd no longer work with him.
The climax of this sequence — and the incident key in demonstrating the loss of these sponsorships was personally devastating — was Ye going to the Los Angeles-based headquarters of the footwear company Sketchers and being summarily removed from the premises. Sketchers asserted Ye came to its premises unannounced and uninvited and was removed after he engaged in "unauthorized filming."
Sketchers also was eager to denounce him: "Skechers is not considering and has no intention of working with West. We condemn his recent divisive remarks and do not tolerate antisemitism or any other form of hate speech."
(As an aside, what was Ye even intending to do at Sketchers headquarters? The "unauthorized filming" the company cited suggests he was attempting to make a phony video to give the false impression he was still marketable in the corporate world, but that's entirely a guess.)
The fallout over Ye's anti-Semitic remarks, at the end of the day, squarely addresses concerns about unfettered speech on social media platforms. Content moderation wasn't necessary; free speech corrected itself in a system where offensive remarks are rectified with more free speech, in this case, the corporate repudiation of Ye.
I think it's important to concede, in addition to the free-speech system being able to regulate itself, a degree of content moderation actually did take place. When Ye made the anti-Semitic comments on Instagram and Twitter, those platforms subsequently removed the postings, as is their wont as private companies. Had those companies decided to the keep them up, they would have faced their own consequences in a free-speech system if others objected to social media platforms allowing that content.
We may have had an earlier indication of Ye's views had information been able to flow a little more freely, more specifically the interview Tucker Carlson of Fox News conducted with Ye. The interview happened before Ye's anti-Semitic posts on social media and appears largely predicated on him appearing in a photo with Candace Owens as the two donned "White Lives Matter" shirts at a Paris fashion event. If you saw the interview as aired by Fox News, you would have seen Ye as a spiritually driven free-thinker and critical of the left, but not exactly over the top offensive.
Vice News, however, this week published on its website extra footage of the interview not broadcast on Fox News. Ye in the discard clips made anti-Semitic comments consistent with his recent comments, as well as a digression about how "fake children" have been inserted into home to manipulate his family. I'm not sure how Vice News got a hold of this footage, but someone who obtained it definitely saw the need to make it public. In any event, the leak of the discarded footage is another victory for the free flow of information.
I remember a watching a segment of the interview as aired by Tucker Carlson, which began with him refuting the suggestion Ye is mentally unstable based on the controversial views he has expressed. "That was not our conclusion," Carlson says. The extra footage Vice News obtained, however, seriously challenges Carlson's assessment of his own interview, to say the least.
Even based on Ye’s social media comments alone, it’s a strange coincidence the corporate fallout against him is happening at the exact same time as Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, which has brought to the fore the issue of free speech on social media with new intensity.
We don’t know for sure how Musk will govern the social media platform, but he has described himself as a “free-speech absolutist” and has taken great strides to signal a new day. One of his first acts this week was canning top executives, including the chief executive and chief financial officer. One of the terminated executive had to suffer the indignity of having to be forcibly escorted out of Twitter's offices, according to a report in the New York Times.
Past leadership at Twitter was seen as obstructing user content simply on the basis individuals with power in the company objected to it, or didn't want it disseminated in the public. The most prominent example was Twitter stopping the spread of a New York Post article on the contents of Hunter Biden's laptop just before the 2020 election, making spurious claims fact-checkers needed to review the article first. Other articles weren't subjected to the same standard. The signal Musk sent by terminating these officials was those days are over.
As this article was set for publication, Musk posted a follow-up tweet late Friday announcing a blue-ribbon commission on content moderation he says will include members with "widely diverse viewpoints." No changes to content policy or account reinstatements, Musk tweeted, will be made until the commission begins its work.
It could be Musk has become more circumspect after riding into the town with the $44 billion takeover and shaking up Twitter, but I still think his initial steps move the platform to a greater free speech framework.
Moreover, the initial guidelines Musk spelled out on the future of Twitter, intended for advertisers but also posted publicly on his Twitter feed, is consistent with a new system with faith in free-speech values.
Let me post the key paragraph before further exposition:
"...Twitter cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences! In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experienced according to your preferences, just as you can choose, for example, to see movies or play video games ranging from all ages to mature."
I'm left to read the tea leaves of Musk's message like anyone else, but I get the impression the acknowledgement of "consequences" for free speech, without spelling out any of those consequences are, is a way for Musk to placate those seeking greater content moderation while, in fact, leaving Twitter largely up to self-regulating free speech. The system he proposes, as I read it, seeks to approach any kind of content moderation based on user preferences rather a hand from above.
I think Musk sees any limits on speech based on his next line on respecting the "laws of the land," which I interpret as Twitter having the same active role in speech moderation as the U.S. government does under the First Amendment. If so, that would leave content moderation to very limited areas, such as explicit calls for violence (not unlike one of Ye's anti-Semitic posts).
If Musk adopts First Amendment principles, that would set up a system consistent with traditional values of free speech largely left to moderate itself. I would hope he applies that approach to Twitter not just domestically, but to other countries that don't join enjoy the same constitutional right. Top on the list would be places like Iran, where protesters repudiating their oppressive government need all the help they can get.
Opponents of free speech on Twitter like to make a point about Donald Trump, asserting he pose a potential danger if he were to return in our political climate. Musk has made an open promise to reverse the permanent ban on Trump, who was banished from Twitter after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. If Trump ends up coming back to Twitter, however, the free-speech system can handle his return. After all, Trump has found other ways to articulate his voice since his ban; the system has been effective at addressing that.
The greatest critics of free speech without content moderation, I believe, are up in arms about Musk's control of Twitter for two reasons. The first is he has openly repudiated the Democratic Party ahead the 2022 election. Musk has shown his hand on political ideology and his opponents don't trust him. The other reasons is these critics are fearful their views won't hold up to public scrutiny. But if that's the case, they should be drawn out, examined and repudiated — as was done with Ye's anti-Semitic comments — rather than being allowed to stand unchallenged.
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