• Doug Most

    Associate Vice President, Executive Editor, Editorial Department Twitter Profile

    Doug Most is a lifelong journalist and author whose career has spanned newspapers and magazines up and down the East Coast, with stops in Washington, D.C., South Carolina, New Jersey, and Boston. He was named Journalist of the Year while at The Record in Bergen County, N.J., for his coverage of a tragic story about two teens charged with killing their newborn. After a stint at Boston Magazine, he worked for more than a decade at the Boston Globe in various roles, including magazine editor and deputy managing editor/special projects. His 2014 nonfiction book, The Race Underground, tells the story of the birth of subways in America and was made into a PBS/American Experience documentary. He has a BA in political communication from George Washington University. Profile

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There are 25 comments on Elon Musk Buys Twitter. Should We Worry?

  1. I think the problem is that many people on one side of the political spectrum think they are the only one that can express their opinions while the other side has to shut up. Wrong. A true democracy allows people to express their views without cancelling them. We are all Americans and should never let partisan views hinder what true democracy stands for, what do you think?

    1. First, I’d question your statement that “many people on one side of the political spectrum think they are the only one that can express their opinion.” Which side is that, exactly? Is it the one trying to restrict what teachers can say in classrooms, what doctors can say to their patients, and what scientists can say to the public? From where I’m standing, it doesn’t seem like partisans on either “side” are particularly concerned with ensuring the free expression of their perceived opponents.

      Moreover, where is it written that in a “true democracy” the right to freedom of expression must be held as absolute in all spaces, both public and private? Where is it written that a “true democracy” must afford its citizens protection from social consequences or popular backlash?

      As a reminder, the city-state of Athens had a legal procedure (ostracism) whereby any citizen could be banished for ten years if enough other citizens didn’t care for their opinions. Modern-day “cancellation” (which mostly seems to involve wealthy celebrities losing sponsorship deals) seems considerably more lax in comparison with the original “true democracy.” Likewise, a majority of modern-day democratic countries have (considerably more nuanced) legal restrictions on the ways in which their citizens can express their views, which may include prohibitions on hate speech, incitements to violence or panic, false or defamatory information, etc.

      Free speech is undoubtedly important and meaningful as a democratic ideal, but in practice, it is never as straightforward as letting everyone say whatever they want, wherever they want, all of the time. Unfortunately, it seems more and more that people don’t really want to consider the complexities, responsibilities, and yes, limits that accompany free speech in a democracy, and would rather use the term as a shallow, partisan slogan to uncritically paint themselves as victims and those who would pander to them (like Mr. Musk) as heroes.

  2. Thank you to the various contributors for their food for thought. I have a few comments:

    * Where was all the hand-wringing when Jeff Bezos (#2 on Forbes’ richest people list) bought the Washington Post (the 6th largest newspaper in the country, bigger than the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune by average circulation).

    * It seems a little disingenuous to worry about the hidden control of Musk when Twitter’s current prioritization algorithms are completely secret. Part of Musk’s stated goals is to open-source these algorithms, and that is something that I think is sorely needed.

    * Srinivasan’s claim that “nearly 50 percent of accounts tweeting about COVID are likely bots” is strangely sourced to a Conversation article, which is sourced to an NPR article that is repeated on many sites throughout the Internet … all of which have one prominent thing in common – none of them cite the original article! Is this a bit of home-grown disinformation not meant to be properly criticized?

    * The idea that regulation is needed “to prevent … falsehoods, viral misinformation” has been roundly rejected by US law since the first amendment. There is certainly bad speech out there in the world, but the problem with regulating it is that you need to have someone you can trust to make the decisions about, for example, what is or is not misinformation. This is an enormous power that has been corrupted time and time again by despots throughout the world.

    * I think it’s questionable whether Twitter is “not a state actor” (i.e., subject to first amendment concerns), given how closely it (and all social media companies) have acted in concert with White House positions (be they on elections, COVID, or social unrest). This will have to be resolved in the judicial courts.

    1. Kudos to you Ari for a well constructed rejoinder to the panelists. It is beyond amazing to me when I see our academic institutions prescribe to the same behavior of Twitter (pre Elon Musk) where only one side of the conversation is allowed while any opposing thoughts are silenced and removed. The fundamental basis for academia is to educate and engage in thoughtful debate not retreat to safe spaces when challenged. It’s been disappointing to say the least to see the degradation of BU in this area. To see MSM come out now and literally state that Musk could influence an election by silencing one party over another is comical, pathetic and the height of unparalleled hypocrisy since it’s all they have been doing to conservatives for five years. I welcome this heroic effort by one man to preserve what our founding fathers had the wisdom to recognize over 230 years ago. It is a significant contrast to the uneducated youths we are cultivating today.

    2. On Twitter you can choose to engage in conversation with diverse groups of people about many subjects. Or you can just follow people you believe to be like minded and enjoy your own private echo chamber. It’s up to you. If you have an issue with an abusive user, report them, tap the three dots next to their name and engage the block feature. Pretty simple. No need to go full pearl clutching

    3. Interesting points Ari. I will challenge you on the first one. When Bezos bought the Post, there was in fact in an enormous amount of concern aired, and it was a huge issue, and the Post has had to constantly battle any perceptions of his involvement, and goes out of its way in any article that mentions Amazon to include a note that Bezos owns the Post. So yes, there was and is hand-wringing. However, the Post is not Twitter. You have to pay a lot of money to subscribe to the Post. It is not a free public forum or town hall like Twitter has become. So that analogy is not apples-to-apples. I think this is all a fascinating debate and it will be interesting to watch it play out.

      1. You may be right, Doug … but I guess I missed much of this public hand-wringing. Was there a BU Today article that covered Bezos’ purchase and potential for influence?

        You are also right that Twitter has a much broader appeal than the Post. In that sense, perhaps it is more like Facebook/Meta (Zuckerberg – #15 on Forbes’ list) …

  3. Ugh nothing us coastal elites despise more than the denizens of society openly expressing their opinions and daring to have counter-revolutionary political thought.

    Let’s hope Musk’s free speech push is quickly crushed and we can return to the timeline where disinformation, misinformation, and all sources of information with which we disagree will be effectively silenced.

    Just the way we like it… right…?

  4. Do the BU editors not know what a blatantly biased headline is? There are so many things wrong with Twitter that I’d be more worried Musk will do nothing. As long as bias is out in the open, let me take a stab with this biased but more accurate headline: “Can Elon Musk fix Twitter’s toxic discourse? Should we worry nothing will change?”

    I mean Twitter has been nothing but a toxic brew of name calling, mob piling on, cancellation, doxing, sarcastic one liners, non-transparent, totally double standard application of its vague rules, and perhaps most importantly censorship of truthful legitimate news stories?

    To be clear Musk’s stated goal is not to fix the toxicity but to fix the free speech issues. If you have less moderated content it won’t necessarily fix toxic discourse. However having a double standard, vague policy that can be easily manipulated to suppress only certain types of toxic political speech but not other toxic political speech is a big problem and also contributes to the toxicity.

    If your stated goal is to allow free expression without political bias the way to promote that while also promoting more thoughtful debate is a to have simple, transparent rules rather than vague easily-manipulated rules such as “anyone spreading misinformation will be suspended”. Well misinformation is highly subjective concept depending on who’s defining it. The temptation for censoring speech you simply don’t like using “misinformation” as an excuse is far too great, and in fact what has been happening in Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Censoring political speech based on completely subjective, vague, non-transparent and double standard criteria has been these companies’ unofficial, informal policy for about 4 years. That is the other kind of toxic.

    So getting back to what Musk can do to fix this is have clear, simple rules that can be easily applied in a unbiased way. So for example start with the most basic stuff: a) Regardless of political leanings, anyone making threats of physical violence against any individual or group, will be … (choose your penalty). b) Any post that is deemed to violate local, state or federal law will be taken down and referred to law enforcement; c) all Twitter members must be real people whose identity is verified d) No personal information shall be shared by Twitter without member’s clear consent, etc

    Point is there are so many things wrong with Twitter it should be easy to improve at least a little.

    1. The lack of understanding around just how difficult it is to moderate user-generated content is apparent in the fact that your post nominally advocates free speech through less moderation, with “simple, transparent rules” and then concludes by proposing a set of rules that for the most part align with the ones Twitter currently uses, but which manage to be even more restrictive and open to biased interpretation .

      1. Not sure I get your point. To say what you said you must believe that Twitter has been an unbiased moderator of content for violations of its simple, concrete rules such as what I stated (rather than vague rules such about misinformation and missing context). If you believe this, you must not have been paying any attention. While it is not your duty to pay attention to this stuff, if you want to comment on this subject you need to learn something about the recent history of Twitter.

        Back to my point, surely it is easier to moderate content where your mission is say to prevent people who violate the law with their speech regardless of what party you belong to versus what Twitter has been actually doing which is to weed out and censor only that speech which does not agree with Twitter’s politics. Surely it is more complicated to try to adapt official stated rules to figure out how to twist their meaning so that they can censor political speech they don’t like. It is not an official policy but it is what Twitter has practiced for the last 4-5 years. You must have missed that part.

        To give some concrete examples: you could be threatening physical violence but if the target happens to be a trump supporter the offender will get a pass! Another more concrete example: after the Will Smith slap, comedians like Dave Chappelle received threats of physical violence ON TWITTER! Again this was not an oversight (there were many like this) this was unstated policy judging by the numbers and what would happen if the offenders were on the political right.

        1. No, you clearly don’t, so allow me to clarify. I don’t believe that Twitter has been an unbiased moderator of content; I am also extremely skeptical that Musk’s acquisition of the company will do anything to eliminate this bias, or that the solution is anywhere near as trite as your post makes it out to be. Anyone claiming to have a “simple fix” to the problem of toxicity on social media is either naive or selling something. I suspect that you fall into the former category, and Elon the latter.

          I am skeptical precisely because I have been paying close attention to Twitter’s policies and actions over the past several years. If you step out of your filter bubble, you will find that users on the left have their own set of “concrete examples” that prove conclusively (at least in their minds) that Twitter is clearly biased against them, a perception that is not helped by the documented use of the platform’s content reporting features by far-right groups to suppress and harass leftist activists. I’m not sure what the example of Dave Chappelle is supposed to prove–as if no left-leaning public figures have received threats via Twitter? My point is that the platform’s pattern of behaviour in these situations is far more indicative of incompetence than it is of a concerted effort to suppress certain categories of political speech. Indeed, if we step back from the self-serving anecdotes and look at the actual scientific research that has been done on this topic, we see that there are numerous issues with Twitter’s moderation, but systematic bias against conservatives is not one of them.

          Moreover, the rules you suggest do not come close to representing a clear solution to this problem. You say that “surely it is easier to moderate content where your mission is to prevent people who violate the law with their speech.” Whose law, given that Twitter operates in thousands of different national and regional jurisdictions? A post that violates German hate speech law might be protected expression in the United States. If some government, somewhere, makes a law stating that it is illegal to deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change, is Twitter obligated to remove all climate skepticism from the platform? That seems like a terrifyingly easy framework to exploit for the purposes of censorship, especially given that your rules would also destroy any hope that the identity of users living under authoritarian regimes would be protected. Moreover, who decides whether these clear and simple rules have been violated? Would it not be the same content moderation staffers who you claim are out to get you? Case in point: Twitter already has rules against threatening physical violence, which your own examples show are largely toothless and only inconsistently applied.

  5. Your comment that musk wants to “control what’s on the internet” is full of hypocrisy. The very mention of this ignores the fact that is what has been done by the current twitter ownership for the past 2-3 years. It shows your bias as well as questions your objectivity in this matter. Musk want a return of free speech not controlled speech.

    1. Musk SAYS he wants a return of free speech. Why are we obligated to take him at his word? Particularly when this seems completely at odds with the actions of institutions he has controlled in the past (e.g., union-busting at Tesla), is it not worth considering even the possibility that, with no oversight or checks in place, he might simply say one thing and do another?

  6. Interesting conversation. The commenters have some legitimate points but seem to be misinterpreting the panelists’ concerns. The panelists’ concern with Musk buying Twitter is that if he removes all regulation of content, what is to prevent misinformation and disinformation, i.e. deliberately false or misleading information, from spreading and mingling with facts and real information? In other words, their concern is not conservative vs liberal, but truth vs lies.

    All we need to do to see the potential dangers of one person controlling media is look to Russia, where Putin controls all media. Most Russian people support the war in Ukraine because the war is only portrayed in Russian media as a just cause to protect a Russian speaking minority living in Ukraine from Nazis. Most Russians are simply unaware of the atrocities committed by their military. Or if they are aware, it seems unbelievable because Russian propaganda so dominates all media in Russia. Would the Russian people still believe Putin’s lies and support a military invasion of Ukraine if their media was independent and valued, above all, accurate reporting of facts?

    1. Charles – isn’t that exactly what Twitter has been? A one sided party platform of misinformation by allowing placement of inaccurate fake news while suppressing or outright removing legitimate fact based news. A company that develops and initiates algorithms that drive subscribers to or away from content that they themselves serve as judge and jury for as worthy for one’s consumption.

      Sam’s comments are spot on. I hope that the panelists would have been less concerned with what one person i.e. Elon Musk will do to Twitter when he is committed to restoring free speech; and more concerned with what an army of partisan extremists have already done to destroy the trust of free speech and freedom.

      1. Twitter may manipulate which tweets we see but it is speculative to say it is controlled by one party. Perhaps the best way Musk could fix the problem of toxic discourse is to shut down Twitter. A world without Twitter or any social media is one I would like to live in.

    2. You ask what is to prevent the spread of “misinformation” and “disinformation”? The best counter to false speech is…good speech!!
      Trust people to decide truth for themselves. Censorship by a blue ribbon committee of “truth experts” is not the answer. That is exactly how it works in Russia and China. We already have law to deal with extreme speech like incitements to violence, slander and defamation.

  7. What a vapid article. The author should be ashamed. “All decisions will be made by one man…”?! No actual company functions that way.

    Yet another example of why I am glad my BU years are far, far behind me. The current woke crusade by those who gave captured its controls is a truly sick joke.

    1. Hi, the Author here, and no, sorry, I am not ashamed. Most coverage of this story has focused on how Musk would be able to make major decisions unilaterally. And because he has a history of erratic behavior and decisions, including spreading false information, many fear how that might allow Twitter to become even more susceptible to widespread misinformation. Nobody knows if it will happen. Only time will tell. But it’s a concern being raised by many, especially human rights groups.

      1. I think Elon is concerned that stopping misinformation has turned into stopping any information the Left does not like. Twitter booted the New York Post for publishing a very real story about Hunter Biden prior to the 2020 election, citing it as “Russian Disinformation” (it wasn’t). Or booting off anyone who raised questions about the COVID lab leak theory, which is now believed by career virologists including former CDC Directer Robert Redfield. Or anyone who challenged the need to vaccine every man, woman, and child with a vaccine for which we have no long term safety data. So yea, Doug, your little echo chamber safe zone is over, sorry.

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