This piece was originally published in Tech Policy Press.
Managing society’s problems related to how (and by whom) social media news feeds are composed is rapidly reducing to the absurd. Elon Musk’s capricious management of Twitter highlights many of the core elements of the presenting problems – while related issues have risen to the Supreme Court. It is time to step back from those proverbial trees to reconsider the forest, and consider a reframing that promises to make many of those problems more tractable from human rights, legal, governance, economic, cultural, and technological perspectives. The essence is to focus on the other end of the proverbial “megaphone” – not the speaker’s end, but the listener’s. Social media platforms are co-opting the “freedom of impression” that we listeners perhaps did not realize we had – instead, humanity needs them to enhance it.
In his recent analysis, New York Times media correspondent Michael Grynbaum alludes to “Citizen Musk,” and how this new press baron on steroids makes Hearst and Murdoch seem like pikers. Musk’s suspension of several journalists “sparked an outcry…from First Amendment advocates, threats of sanctions from European regulators, and questions about the social media platform’s future as a gathering place for news and ideas…as people debate complex, novel issues of free speech and online censorship.” Many of those accounts were later reinstated, after Musk polled Twitter users. Such uses of Twitter polls are to platform governance as thumbs downs are to gladiatorial governance – a veneer of mob rule over a whimsically brutal dictatorship.
Looking beneath the froth of current news, this circus matters deeply, because — frivolous as Twitter often is, and aberrant as its new owner may be — it really has become an essential “town square” for journalists, as Grynbaum highlights; for scientists fighting Covid, as Carl Bergstrom explains; and for many other self-organized communities. And it facilitates those communities’ abilities to interconnect with one another – as an internet of ideas (however limited as yet). Many users are already seeking a replacement for Twitter. Whatever that alternative may be, humanity needs these essential networks to work better.