Advice for Elon Musk From a Free Speech Mogul

From a story on politico.com by Ben Schreckinger headlined “Free advice for Elon from a free speech mogul”:

Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, his stated opposition to censorship and his weekend tweeting of a baseless theory about Paul Pelosi’s attacker have all reignited debates about content moderation, disinformation and the future of free expression in a digital world.

Twitter is the story of the moment, but in a larger sense, what’s at stake here is the future of the online conversation in a democracy: Is there a way to keep it both civil and wide-open?

To help Elon, and the rest of us, navigate the post-takeover landscape, I rang up another Silicon Valley founder—who happens to be his former employee.

After a stint as Tesla’s head writer, Hamish McKenzie co-founded Substack in 2017. Since then, the email newsletter platform has rattled the media industry and drawn criticism with its hands-off approach to content on the way to attracting an impressive lineup of writers and a million paid subscribers.

Now, McKenzie has some ideas for his former boss.

What’s your advice for Elon?

Just change the business model of Twitter. The real problem is not the content moderation policy or the content moderation tools. It’s the business model that creates the problems that cause people to seek content moderation solutions.

People have been gnashing their teeth about misinformation, disinformation, online harassment and have kind of increasingly struck on the idea that censorship is the way to fix them. The reason that these problems are arising is not because there’s insufficient censorship in the world, but because these dominant media platforms have a business model that rewards conflict and contentious behavior.

So, what would you do about it?

Rip advertising out of the entire system.

If your business model is based on a news feed that is populated with ads, then your game is to monopolize people’s attention. What makes people not want to put down Twitter is creating addictive experiences. Engagement has nothing to do with quality of discussion or quality of thought.

It often has a lot to do with what pisses the most people off.

What has running Substack taught you about moderation?

If writers and creators can own all their content and own their direct relationships with their readers, all the questions around content moderation start to feel like questions around content moderation pre-Donald Trump, pre-2016, and much more like what WordPress has to think about.

What does that look like?

You can use the First Amendment as the guide.

Do government or civil society groups have some legitimate interest in taking actions to prevent the spread of foreign disinformation, or hate speech that could incite violence?

Yeah, we’re supportive of those actions as much as they conform with the protections of the First Amendment.

Has Substack gotten takedown requests from governments or civil society groups? How have you handled them?

All I’ll say on that is that we have had requests from governments. But I’ll leave it at that.

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