All this fuss about Twitter is annoying the hell out of me because the activist left is deliberately mixing up its terms either to make sensible debate impossible or to prevent it altogether. (I know where I’d put my money.)
So this is one those posts I’m writing today in order to reference later.
First I’m going to break down the problems, then I’m going to offer a solution. (No other blog does this.)
There appear to me three areas of concern with respect to Twitter. To keep things simple, we’ll just call them the three issues.
First Issue: Misinformation
The first issue concerns the spread of misinformation, or disinformation, or both. In other words: the extent to which Twitter is or isn’t faciliating the circulation of things that aren’t true.
The problem doesn’t seem to be that untruths are circulated on Twitter—it’s never attempted to pass itself off as a source of infallible truth—but that people become upset when they see untruths intruding into subjects on which they have strong feelings.
This isn’t even political, it’s a simple question of human nature.
It would be untrue to state that the national language of Denmark is Dutch, or that Massachusetts is the biggest state in New England, or that the airspeed velocity of an unladen sparrow exceeds 100 miles per hour. It would also be untrue to state that Joe Biden is the devil of hell, or Donald Trump is literally Hitler, or that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. It would even be untrue to say your hair looks great like that.
And yet such things are said routinely. Not just on Twitter: everywhere.
Some things are factually and objectively untrue. Some things are objectively untrue but considered to be matters of opinion. And some things are objective truths that people just don’t want to hear. And people get them all mixed up all the time.
That’s true of politics, culture, everything.
Think of the the tens of millions of coffee mugs and tee-shirts out there proclaiming “World’s Greatest Mom.” It is logically impossible for all but one of them to be objectively true. And yet the mugs are out there. The mugs are out there!
People mean different things when they talk about misinformation. Anything that isn’t objectively and demonstrably true can obviously be considered misinformation. So can things that people don’t like to be true, or don’t want to be true. And sometimes people call something misinformation to deliberately mislead people.
Any policy to suppress or control the spread of misinformation is doomed from the start because it requires universal agreement on what is and is not true, and that’s just not something any human beings are ever going to produce. Statements like “the square root of 9 is goat cheese” and “Halloween falls on February 43rd” and “The role of Indiana Jones was originally written for Charles Nelson Reilly” are obviously untrue, but they’re also easily refuted.
Given limited means—and all means are limited—trying to control the spread of misinformation requires a kind of triage, because it can never be possible to suppress all misinformation. Someone will therefore have to prioritize the misinformation to be suppressed. But different people are going to have different priorities, and they’re going to change over time, and it’s not hard to imagine what a big mess that would be.
What’s more, the history of science informs us that even objective universal truths that enjoy widespread public acceptance frequently turn out to have been wrong. Which is good: that means we’ve learned something new. That’s progress. But every new advance in science, every new discovery, will first appear as misinformation to many people because it will necessarily contradict what were previously understood to be commonplace truths: the sun revolves around the earth, the world is flat, no one will ever need more than 640 kilobytes of RAM.
(Heh… that last one actually is misinformation: Bill Gates never said it.)
Squash misinformation, in other words, and you squash all possibility of progress. Progress requires that applecarts be upset, that sacred cows be gored—that dearly beloved truths be laid to rest as soon as they’re revealed as errors.
How much better to allow all ideas free circulation so people have the freedom to debate what is and isn’t true, thereby moving us inexorably toward ever greater wisdom as a species?
Second Issue: “Hate Speech”
The first problem with hate speech is that it’s an impossibly subjective term and therefore meaningless. One man’s hate speech is another man’s casual insult.
Even terms that seem obvious—calling someone an ethnic slur, for example—are often used innocuously by the very ethnic groups supposed to be harmed by the term.
Furthermore, some people attempt to label any perceived criticism at all as “hate speech.” (And why shouldn’t they, when it’s a proven means of silencing opposition?) The pronoun and transgender activists are especially adept at this: they’re actually attempting to normalize the idea that it’s “hate speech” to say that only women can become pregnant, which is really just a roundabout way of trying to redefine the word “woman.”
We can argue about the definition of woman, that’s fine, but to do so we need to be able to make our arguments without being silenced as speakers of hate speech for the mere act of putting our opinions into words.
The dangerous part of “hate speech”—the part we should all join together in fighting—is not the speech but the hate, and hate cannot be reliably discerned from mere words.
“I hate Swedes and wish they could all be rounded up and shot” might seem to be obvious hate speech, but it might also be someone venting their exasperation during a European sports Championship or the Eurovision finals. Or getting off the train from Malmö.
None of this is to say there aren’t hideous expressions of genuine hatred all over the internet (and publsihed in books and newspapers, and spoken on television and radio, and written on the subway walls and tenement halls). It’s only to say that hatred, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and with eight billion beholders on the planet we’re never going to arrive at a uniform definition of “hate speech”—nor should we.
Fighting the phantom of “hate speech” is a fool’s errand, especially online—even if against all odds we somehow found a way to censor all “hate speech” from appearing on Twitter, we would have done nothing at all about the actual problem of hatred itself.
And let me make a very unpopular point if only because it’s so unpopular that people seldom make it: people are allowed to be racist. They’re allowed to be homophobic. Misogyny is not a crime. Neither is Islamophobia. Anyone can hate whoever they want in their dark heart, for any reason at all, and in America at least they even have the right to voice even the most loathsome opinions. Because they’re just opinions and words are not violence.
So let the haters hate—but let harrassment, incitement, libel, and slander remain prosecutable offenses.
Third Issue: Political Bias
The third main issue is political bias manifest in the application of rules.
More specifically, with respect to Twitter, it’s conservatives’ contention that although Twitter’s rules and terms of service may have been clear and consistent, the people responsible for enforcing them tended to go after conservatives much more frequently than they went after progressives.
There’s ample evidence to support that claim, but allow me to suggest that the problem isn’t with the one-sided enforcement of the rules, but with the rules themselves, most of which (in this case) relate to the two issues already discussed.
The Big Overarching Problem
The big overarching problem that actually inspired me—compelled me—to write all this is that the activist left mixes the three issues up constantly, and I suppose deliberately, because they’re not interested in making a case or winning an argument: they know what’s right and just want to lay down their law. They therefore require the wiggle room afforded by ambiguity. They know they can’t define misinformation or hate speech in simple declarative terms because to do so would allow those terms to be used against them.
That’s been driving me crazy for years, but I think my easy solution to the three issues also addresses that.
The Easy Solution
The three issues or problems I described above have a very simple solution, which is not to censor or suppress any speech on Twitter. Ever. For any reason.
Instead, allow for more censorship by individual users. It’s that easy. Let every user curate their own list of terms they want censored from their feed. If seeing a particular ethnic slur wounds you, type it into your “blocked terms” list, and Twitter will keep it out of your feed forevermore.
Users already have the ability to block particular accounts from their feed, but Twitter could easily tweak their app so that, for example, people who’ve blocked the New York Post will not only not see it in their feed: neither will they see retweets of the Post’s content. That should take care of the misinformation gripe.
Maybe it could even be possible to block users based on words and phrases that do or don’t appear in their profiles. One could hypothetically block from one’s feed any users who don’t (or do) identify their pronouns. One could block any user whose profile included “MAGA” or “I’m with her.” I’m spitballin’ here, but you get the idea: the more tools the better.
Speech would be free at last, but every user who wanted to would be free to build their own custom bubble. Just as in the real world you’re (ostensibly) free to say whatever you want and the rest of are free to ignore you.
Users could increase or decrease their own level of censorship until they found the balance they were comfortable with. At the same time, users seeking to maximize the reach of their tweets would be forced to take those millions of individual censors into account, thereby introducing a level of thoughtfulness: people would be able to weigh the extent to which they value reach over “decency”—just as they do in day-to-day life.
The Piss in the Punchbowl
The problem with my easy solution has nothing to do with Twitter or its users, but with our governments. The European Union has, for example, made it very clear that they are going to insist that Elon Musk enforce strict censorship on Twitter if he hopes to keep his app alive within the EU.
That’s actually a pretty monstrous thing to do, but the EU is a pretty monstrous thing.
There may however be a workaround for that. (May be: I’m not sure what particular legislation or regulations apply here.)
All Musk has to do is tell the European Union that although he intends to make Twitter both transparent and supportive of free speech, he also fully intends for his company to adhere to all laws. In order to facilitate Twitter’s total compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the relevant EU laws and regulations, he will therefore require a regularly updated database of all words, phrases, and ideas that must be blocked within the European market—in every language.
Also, a continuously updated database of everything deemed to be misinformation.
And, in the interests of total transparency, he’ll even host those databases and ensure they’re accessible to the public at all times.
I know it won’t happen—our world is too broken and corrupt for anything that beautiful to happen—but it’s glorious to sit back and daydream about the first meeting of the EU’s Special Committee on Hate Speech and Misinformation…