Inside Twitter, Fears That Musk’s Views Will Revisit Past Troubles

Elon Musk had a plan to purchase Twitter and undo its content material moderation insurance policies. On Tuesday, only a day after reaching his $44 billion deal to purchase the corporate, Mr. Musk was already at work on his agenda. He tweeted that previous moderation choices by a prime Twitter lawyer had been “clearly extremely inappropriate.” Later, he shared a meme mocking the lawyer, sparking a torrent of assaults from different Twitter customers.

Mr. Musk’s private critique was a tough reminder of what faces workers who create and implement Twitter’s advanced content material moderation insurance policies. His imaginative and prescient for the corporate would take it proper again to the place it began, workers mentioned, and pressure Twitter to relive the final decade.

Twitter executives who created the principles mentioned that they had as soon as held views about on-line speech that had been much like Mr. Musk’s. They believed Twitter’s insurance policies ought to be restricted, mimicking native legal guidelines. However greater than a decade of grappling with violence, harassment and election tampering modified their minds. Now, many executives at Twitter and different social media corporations view their content material moderation insurance policies as important safeguards to guard speech.

The query is whether or not Mr. Musk, too, will change his thoughts when confronted with the darkest corners of Twitter.

“You’ve gotten mentioned that you really want extra ‘free speech’ and fewer moderation on Twitter. What’s going to this imply in apply?” Twitter workers wrote in an inner listing of questions they hoped to ask Mr. Musk, which was seen by The New York Occasions.

One other query requested: “Some individuals interpret your arguments in protection of free speech as a need to open the door again up for harassment. Is that true? And if not, do you have got concepts for how one can each enhance free speech and preserve the door closed on harassment?”

Mr. Musk has been unmoved by warnings that his plans are misguided. “The acute antibody response from those that worry free speech says all of it,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

He went on to criticize the work of Vijaya Gadde and Jim Baker, two of Twitter’s prime attorneys. Ms. Gadde has led Twitter’s coverage groups for greater than a decade, usually dealing with sophisticated moderation choices, together with the choice to chop off Donald J. Trump close to the top of his time period as president. A former basic counsel for the F.B.I., Mr. Baker joined Twitter in 2020.

Twitter’s chief govt, Parag Agrawal, didn’t straight reply to the criticism, however in a tweet he wrote, “Pleased with our individuals who proceed to do the work with focus and urgency regardless of the noise.”

Workers of Twitter and different social media corporations mentioned that Mr. Musk appeared to know little about Twitter’s method to content material moderation and the issues that had led to its guidelines — or that he simply didn’t care. A few of the solutions he has made, like labeling automated accounts, had been in place earlier than Mr. Musk launched his bid.

“He’s principally shopping for the place of being a rule-maker and a speech arbiter,” mentioned David Kaye, a regulation professor on the College of California, Irvine, who labored with the United Nations on speech points. “That has been actually fraught for everyone who’s been in that place.”

In its early years as a small start-up, Twitter was ruled by one philosophy: The tweets must flow. That meant Twitter did little to average the conversations on its platform.

Twitter’s founders took their cues from Blogger, the publishing platform, owned by Google, that a number of of them had helped construct. They believed that any reprehensible content material can be countered or drowned out by different customers, mentioned three workers who labored at Twitter throughout that point.

“There’s a certain quantity of idealistic zeal that you’ve: ‘If individuals simply embrace it as a platform of self-expression, wonderful issues will occur,’” mentioned Jason Goldman, who was on Twitter’s founding workforce and served on its board of administrators. “That mission is efficacious, but it surely blinds you to suppose sure unhealthy issues that occur are bugs moderately than equally weighted makes use of of the platform.”

The corporate sometimes eliminated content material provided that it contained spam, or violated American legal guidelines forbidding little one exploitation and different legal acts.

In 2008, Twitter employed Del Harvey, its twenty fifth worker and the primary particular person it assigned the problem of moderating content material full time. The Arab Spring protests began in 2010, and Twitter turned a megaphone for activists, reinforcing many workers’ perception that good speech would win out on-line. However Twitter’s energy as a software for harassment turned clear in 2014 when it turned the epicenter of Gamergate, a mass harassment marketing campaign that flooded ladies within the online game trade with dying and rape threats.

“If there are not any guidelines towards abuse and harassment, some individuals are susceptible to being bullied into silence, and then you definately don’t get the good thing about their voice, their perspective, their free expression,” mentioned Colin Crowell, Twitter’s former head of worldwide public coverage, who left the corporate in 2019.

In response, Twitter started increasing its insurance policies. However new threats emerged. In September 2016, a Russian troll farm quietly created 2,700 pretend Twitter profiles and used them to sow discord concerning the upcoming presidential election between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton.

The profiles went undiscovered for months, whereas complaints about harassment continued. In 2017, Jack Dorsey, the chief govt on the time, declared that coverage enforcement would grow to be the corporate’s prime precedence. Later that yr, ladies boycotted Twitter in the course of the #MeToo motion, and Mr. Dorsey acknowledged the corporate was “nonetheless not doing sufficient.”

He introduced an inventory of content material that the corporate would not tolerate: nude pictures shared with out the consent of the particular person pictured, hate symbols and tweets that glorified violence.

In 2018, Twitter banned a number of accounts linked to the hack-and-leak operation that uncovered Mrs. Clinton’s marketing campaign emails, and it started suspending right-wing figures like Alex Jones from its service as a result of they repeatedly violated insurance policies.

The subsequent yr, Twitter rolled out new insurance policies that had been supposed to stop the unfold of misinformation in future elections, banning tweets that might dissuade individuals from voting or mislead them about how to take action. Mr. Dorsey banned all types of political promoting, however usually left tough moderation choices to Ms. Gadde.

Twitter additionally developed a method that may permit it to maintain up extra tweets: Moderately than take away them, it added labels to tweets that contained misinformation about elections and restricted their capability to unfold rapidly throughout the platform.

In preparation for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Twitter banned manipulated movies often called “deepfakes” and forbade customers to share materials obtained via hacking campaigns.

That coverage was examined when The New York Submit printed an article containing emails purportedly obtained from the laptop computer of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son Hunter. Fearing that the supplies got here from a hack-and-leak operation, Twitter blocked the article from being shared on its platform.

Mr. Dorsey publicly disagreed with the choice. Days later, Ms. Gadde introduced that the coverage had been modified and that Twitter would permit the Submit article to look in tweets.

The episode has grow to be a linchpin in conservative critiques of Twitter, and was echoed in Mr. Musk’s critique of Ms. Gadde.

Mr. Musk mentioned he wished to return Twitter to its early days, when solely unlawful content material was eliminated. “I’m towards censorship that goes far past the regulation,” Mr. Musk tweeted on Tuesday.

Mr. Musk’s plans might additionally face authorized issues in Europe. On Saturday, European policymakers reached an settlement on landmark laws known as the Digital Companies Act, which requires social media platforms like Twitter to extra aggressively police their companies for hate speech, misinformation and illicit content material.

The brand new regulation would require Twitter and different social media corporations with greater than 45 million customers within the European Union to conduct annual threat assessments concerning the unfold of dangerous content material on their platforms and description plans to fight the issue. If they aren’t seen as doing sufficient, the businesses may be fined as much as 6 % of their international income, and even be banned from the European Union for repeat offenses.

Inside Twitter, frustrations have mounted over Mr. Musk’s moderation plans, and a few workers have questioned if he would actually halt their work throughout such a essential second, when they’re set to start moderating tweets about elections in Brazil and one other nationwide election in america.

Adam Satariano contributed reporting.

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