Reviews | Why Elon Musk is right to let Trump return to Twitter
It has to do with a guy named Tom Diaz, whom I knew decades ago when I was writing about American gun manufacturers and he was a prominent gun control activist. Diaz is now retired, but as a hobby he sometimes makes short videos and posts them on social media for his friends and followers.
His most recent video, posted on multiple platforms last week, was a four-minute campaign against German airline Lufthansa, which made headlines after staff members blocked Jewish passengers from boarding a plane. flight to Frankfurt. Diaz traveled through the history of the original airline Luft Hansa as a tool of the Nazis and wondered if the modern incarnation – which disavows any connection to its namesake – might secretly harbor some of the same anti-Semitic attitudes.
YouTube took down the video, notifying Diaz in an automated email that it violated the company’s hate speech policy. “We know this might be disappointing,” the email reads, “but it’s important to us that YouTube is a safe place for everyone.” Diaz appealed but was denied.
Now, I’m not convinced by Diaz’s case against Lufthansa. I guess – human nature being what it is – a few frazzled staff members made a horribly bad decision. That Lufthansa was right to apologize is obvious; that the incident alludes to a dark core of decades-old anti-Semitism within the company strikes me as a bit conspiratorial.
But it’s hard to build a sensible argument to label video hate speech. Diaz does not accuse anyone at Lufthansa of Nazism. It simply lays out the company’s history and asks questions about its behavior today. Maybe a YouTube algorithm flagged the video because it contained multiple images of Nazis. But all these images came from publicly accessible archives, some of which were German. The story may be disturbing, but it cannot in itself be odious.
Here’s what’s really happening: Social media companies, under a barrage of political pressure to police their sites, are finally making a concerted effort to comply. The problem is, they just aren’t designed for it.
They are not media or book publishers. They are run by engineers who have designed their sites as digital bulletin boards where anyone can post a flyer; indifference to actual content is ingrained in their corporate DNA. They’re about as equipped to make decisions about authorized speech as I am to code in Java.
Of course, there are some basic things tech companies should and shouldn’t do as responsible citizens. No site should be a playground for bots programmed to spread division and lies (like Twitter once was). No social media platform should deliberately prioritize hateful content just because it drives traffic (as Facebook has been accused of doing). If someone (like, for example, a Russian president) is using your platform for nefarious purposes, then they are abusing your trust and you need to stop them.
But having worked for a few tech companies myself (Yahoo and its subsequent owner, Verizon), I can tell you that I don’t want to live in a world where coders and product managers decide what speech is appropriate and what should be. censored – and, believe me, neither are you.
Which brings me back to Musk and his libertarian take on Twitter. It is fashionable to say that Musk is naive at best, or a tool for Trumpism at worst. Personally, I found the former Twitter president’s absence a happy one, and I despair at the prospect of him driving news cycles again with his semi-literate chatter.
But at the end of the day, I can’t help but feel that Musk’s vision is one that leads to a freer and more democratic future, however disappointing or chaotic it may be.
The President of the United States should not be censored because dangerous extremists find him inspiring. And I would rather the public have to sift through all sorts of theories and claims – some valid, some comprehensive – than leave the parameters of our public discourse to the judgment of an algorithm.
I’d rather live in a digital society where both Trump and Diaz have a say, than one where both can be silenced. Ultimately, I think we’ll come to understand that it’s not really the job of tech companies to separate fact from fiction, or dangerous rhetoric from legitimate dissent.