Opinion

Trump's back on Twitter. A victory for free speech?

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

Elon Musk over the weekend announced that he was lifting Twitter's ban on former President Donald Trump, whose account was "permanently" suspended after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack for what Twitter described as violations of its policies against inciting violence. Musk has vowed to make Twitter a haven for absolute freedom of speech, and he said his decision to reinstate Trump's account was a victory for democracy, because Twitter users who participated in an online poll narrowly favored letting Trump tweet again. "The people have spoken. Trump will be reinstated," Musk tweeted. "Vox Populi, Vox Dei." 

Trump now has his own social network, Truth Social, and says there's no reason for him to return to Twitter. Still, Musk's decision met a barrage of criticism from people who said giving Trump the option of returning proves that Musk is clearing the way for more misinformation and hate speech on Twitter, noting that racist memes and slurs increased on the platform in the weeks after Musk completed his takeover. Employees say Musk's promise to protect the right "to speak freely within the bounds of the law" has led him to chip away at the trust and safety team responsible for policing content. Is restoring Trump's Twitter account a victory for free speech, or hate speech?

Musk is enabling hate speech

Musk's decision to let Trump tweet again was hardly surprising, says Quinta Jurecic at The Atlantic. He previously called the decision to ban Trump "foolish in the extreme," and suggested he'd reverse it once, or if, he became Twitter's boss. But this "entire incident is terrifically stupid." It's a story that "revolves around the whims of two wealthy and self-involved men who enjoy nothing more than public attention." It's not about a free-speech hero saving the world from censorship. In fact, Musk's decision demonstrates that he "is clearly unconcerned about the risk of future violence."

Trump won't be tweeting much anytime soon — and probably can't, given his contractual obligations to his own Truth Social platform. But "Trump is not known for honoring his word," so it's easy to imagine him trying to recapture the audience he was able to stir up with his volatile tweets. And we've seen the damage he can do. "A world with Trump back on Twitter, once more campaigning for office and newly able to broadcast his hatreds and destabilizing whims, is likely riskier than a world with Trump banned from Twitter. In a time of rising political violence, handing a megaphone back to this man is a dangerous thing." 

Trump's Truth Social posts show he's still dangerous

It's no mystery what Trump might post if he returns to Twitter, says Missouri State University professor Brian Ott, co-author of The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage, in The New York Times. Since losing the 2020 election, Trump has repeatedly demeaned and dehumanized people he sees as enemies on Truth Social. His sharing of "a conspiracy theory around the violence visited upon Paul Pelosi is a case in point, especially given that it appears Mr. Pelosi's attacker was radicalized online." The "symbolic violence" of Trump's words since he lost the 2020 election are meant to mobilize "his army to act on it." 

Since leaving office, Trump has "amplified QAnon conspiracy theories, extremism and far-right ideas on Truth Social." He "told his followers that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had a 'death wish' for approving a deal to fund the government through December." He then ratcheted up emotions even more with "a racist jab about Mr. McConnell's wife." Fortunately, nobody hurt the McConnells. But Trump has shown time and again that he won't hesitate "to invoke racially and sexually charged rhetoric that contains an implicit call to violence. Trump is an accelerant; his message is a match."

It was unfair to ban Trump while giving the left a pass

"It says a lot about the times in which we live when a decision reached by democratic process elicits outrage," says the Boston Herald in an editorial. Musk asked Twitter users whether he should let Trump return to Twitter, and he's merely following through on his promise to listen to them. And moving forward, he has said Twitter will establish "new procedures and a 'content moderation council'" to help make decisions on restoring suspended accounts.

The left is just mad because it only stands up for free speech when it likes what it's hearing. Rep. Maxine Walters told BLM protesters awaiting the George Floyd verdict, "We're looking for a guilty verdict," and she urged protesters to stay in the streets and "fight for justice" if they didn't get what they wanted. You can still see her message circulating on Twitter. But liberals are "livid" that Musk is offering Trump a spot on the platform again. Giving some free speech tinged with violence a pass, while banning it on Twitter, "is antithetical to democracy. If you're going to ban controversial speech, ban it all."

Musk has to strike a balance

Musk calls himself a "free speech absolutist," but there are limits, says MeWe founder Mark Weinstein in The Wall Street Journal. "Increasing free speech on Twitter is vital to bolstering democracy, but sites that allow absolute free speech are overrun with hateful posts, spam, pornography, bullying, doxing, and incitement of violence." Musk has to find a way to give people the soapbox they want while reining in the surge in "racial slurs and hate speech" Twitter has seen since he took over, or Twitter will lose a lot of users.

His best option is "light, even-handed moderation with no political bias and no double standards." This will require enforcing "a few simple rules," including "no inciting of violence, no bullying, no doxing, no hateful posts — with the last defined clearly and narrowly, in a way partisans on both sides can understand and agree with." Let people express all viewpoints freely "and engage in hearty debates about politics, health issues, diets, lifestyles, etc. This approach isn't conservative or liberal. It's American."

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