You don't want Twitter to be a free speech zone

Published on , 1355 words, 5 minutes to read

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Every so often I get another update about the Elon Musk buying Twitter saga and every so often I get this unspecified feeling of dread for the future where that purchase goes through. Among the things that I've seen, the biggest thing that worries me is the idea that Elon Musk wants to turn Twitter into a "free speech zone". In terms of red flags being raised, this should be the biggest, reddest flag ever raised in the history of social media.

If this happens and Twitter is made into a "free speech zone", I am going to drastically lessen my use of it in favor of more ethical social media protocols like the Fediverse. I really hope this is an "if" problem and not a "when" problem, but I'm getting the feeling that it's a "when" problem. You can follow me on Mastodon or another ActivityPub server (such as Pleroma or Pixelfed) at If Twitter really does fall, you probably should get on Mastodon too.

Why "free speech zones" are bad

If you have also been raised in the USA, you may wonder why something being a "free speech zone" is bad at all. One of the prevailing myths in American culture is that the US is exceptional because of government freedoms like the freedom of speech. Over time some people have made drastic misunderstandings of this part of the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

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This should not be shocking, but I am not a lawyer. This is my own understanding based on lived experience being one of the few people that actually paid attention to my US government class.

This says that Congress (the legislative branch of the US government) cannot place limits on the freedom of speech. Somehow this has been construed to mean that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other private companies cannot place limits on what can be said on their platforms. The reasons for why they do this have some intriguing misunderstandings of the concept of the "public square" (not a legal concept as far as I understand) and largely boil down to circular logic. If you stand on top of a cardboard box in a public square to speak something objectionable, people can tell you to shut up if you are making a disturbance. The police can force you to stop under threat of violence (financial or physical) if they determine you are making a disturbance.

A "free speech zone" would not be able to make someone shut up. This is how you create behaviour that threatens people like me. This isn't something I bring up on my blog much (I'd much rather you judge me based on the things I create rather than something about me I didn't ask for), but I am a nonbinary transgender person. For choosing to self-actualize and live as my true self, I get bullied and harassed (amusingly enough, I get both the level of shit that men are given and the level of shit that women are given). Here is a recent example:

Subject: you are annoying

And unloveable

You can never escape your real identity with gay cartoons

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Amusingly enough this person followed up to this email with "Just to be clear that wasn't transphobic (I am enby) I just think you know you're annoying and unfunny shark cartoons won't help", as if internalized transphobia is not a thing that exists. Internalized transphobia is a bitch and a half to deal with, but I've found it worth my time to fully dissect those feelings and then dismiss them properly.

It really doesn't help that most of the examples of "free speech zones" are websites where people just want to spam the n-word without a moderator stopping them. When I moderated IRC servers sometimes people would just have this rabid affinity for spamming the n-word and when asked to stop they would get very angry because I was impinging on their "right to free speech".

There are also politicians in my country of citizenship that want to make my existence anywhere near children a sex offense at the federal level.

If things are this bad with moderation in the picture, imagine how bad things will be when moderation is out of the picture. That is the true horror of "free speech zones". They do not have rules. They do not have limits. They will self-select for the worst of the worst and that's how you get sites that make things like 4chan look like a civilized discussion room.

This is how you scare people like me away from the public sphere entirely. If you support "free speech zones", you cannot then go around and say that you support the LGBTQ+ community. Those are diametrically opposed statements. I should not have to be brave. I should be able to be safe. If you are a true supporter of free speech, you should be working to help change things such that both "free speech zones" and radical self-censorship are not needed.

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God the comments on this one are going to be horrible.

Now in this article is where my writing classes tell me I should add some sort of conclusion, resolution, or other kind of "wrapping it up" sentiment to the article. This usually involves making your closing arguments in some kind of conclusion and suggesting a remediation or an alternate path that people could take to avoid the core problem of "free speech zones" entirely. Maybe actually moderating things properly would help, but then you have the problem where the people doing content moderation have horrible mental health issues as a result of doing the moderation. So that may not be viable, meaning that I don't really have any good solutions to propose.

At least the status quo is somewhat tenable, if not slightly shitty for people like me (right-wing hate against trans people is allowed to stay up on twitter but if you're trans and you reply to any of that hate with a "hey can you please not do this", you're likely to get banned suspended from twitter indefinitely when people mass-report you for trying to be reasonable).

Maybe Twitter is too big to moderate effectively and something more decentralized with human moderators you can actually know as people (like you can with Mastodon) is better. I'm good friends with the person that moderates the Mastodon server I use and he lets me get away with crazy things like operating a Waifu Diffusion image generation bot on that Mastodon server. Maybe that won't scale either because of the same burnout issues. I don't know. I certainly know that basing it all on something like an immutable blockchain is about the worst decision we can make though.

I don't have a good conclusion here. I don't have a good suggestion for what people should do about this situation. I am wholly powerless in the equation besides taking my ball and going home. I'd really hate to have to do that with Twitter, but I'm willing to do it if I have to. It really sucks that my job involves me using Twitter.

I may just pivot a lot of my DevRel stuff over to LinkedIn, but I really hate that so much of the industry is forced to use LinkedIn because so much of the industry uses LinkedIn and then you get isolated from connections without it.

Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.

Tags: twitter, elon, mastodon, fediverse, noxp