“The prevailing opinion among ‘free speech absolutists,’” the neuroscientist and public intellectual Sam Harris tweeted, “appears to be that this platform, in order to become healthy, must helplessly publish the malicious lies of any maniac, at scale, regardless of the consequences. Good luck with that.”
This tweet, along with the reinstatement of Donald Trump’s Twitter account, has caused a whirlwind of discussion and debate on the platform—the same arguments about free speech and social media as the “digital public square” that seem to go nowhere, regardless of how often we try. And part of the reason they go nowhere is because the situation is both more simple and more complicated than many of us want to recognize.
Of course, what constitutes “malicious lies” and who can or should be considered a “maniac” isn’t always easy to discern. So then the issue becomes, how do we develop a method for discernment that is fair, reasonable, responsible, and trustworthy? Who do we get to decide this, and how do we decide who gets to decide? The answer, in this case, depends on one very important realization: No matter what we think, want, or feel, Twitter is not, has never been, and likely can never be a public square.
This is where Harris’s argument makes total sense. Twitter is a private company, and as such can have whatever rules it likes—and it can apply them with whatever level of consistency it likes. Harris is right that any sane terms of service would cause people spreading falsehoods to be booted from the platform within minutes, and he has good reason to appeal to Musk to create and implement those terms. If you probe further, however, things seem much messier. Donald Trump, for instance, flagrantly and repeatedly violated Twitter’s terms of service throughout his presidency, but was only removed once his term was nearly over. The argument for keeping him on in the preceding years was that despite his transgressions, he was a public figure and people had a right to follow and hear from him. It was also determined that Trump couldn’t block people for that reason, and he couldn’t be denied access to such a huge public platform where so many people get their news and do much of their communicating.
All of this messiness is the result of us treating and thinking of Twitter as a public square even though it isn’t one. This is where appeals to a culture of free speech and an adherence to the First Amendment tend to take over the conversation, and it’s easy to understand why. A lot happens on Twitter, and while some are quick to dismiss its influence, what happens online clearly impacts the real world in a variety of ways. The Arab Spring, the 2016 presidential election, and the often vicious discussion and debate over COVID-19 vaccination and lockdowns are just a few examples. Whether or not we are online can sometimes mean the difference between being able to contribute to our larger discourse or not. No matter how you slice it, that’s a powerful thing, and it makes sense for the stakes to be as high as they seem to be.
This reveals the actual problem, however: Right now, websites like Twitter exist in the public consciousness in a kind of superposition—Schrödinger’s public square. On the one hand, they are platforms with outsized power over and influence—serving as forums for discussion and debate, the dissemination of news (real and fake), and the hotbed of our culture. Politicians, institutions, and public figures recognize this, and as a result put a great deal of energy into and emphasis on their presence there. Regardless of the reality, the perception is that platforms like Twitter are something real and must be reckoned with. On the other hand, social media platforms are businesses, and as a result are under no obligation to become public squares, or to become better ones, simply because that’s what we’ve decided they are or how we have chosen to use them.
Imagine us wanting Starbucks to take more seriously its function as a co-working space. It can, and it could benefit from doing so, but it doesn’t have to because that’s not what it actually is or why it exists. Starbucks can turn every one of its locations into a walk-up window without any seating or wifi, and there’d be nothing wrong with that in principle—and there’d be nothing we can say about it with any moral or political authority. You’d just have to write your screenplay or hold your startup meetings somewhere else.
The real question isn’t whether platforms like Twitter and Facebook are public squares (because they aren’t), but whether they should be. Should everyone have a right to access these platforms and speak through them the way we all have a right to stand on a soap box downtown and speak through a megaphone? It’s a more complicated ask than we realize—certainly more complicated than those (including Elon Musk himself) who seem to think merely declaring Twitter a public square is sufficient.
If we’re to earnestly go this route, much will have to change in terms of oversight, structure, and content moderation. Does the blocking functionality change fundamentally? Is it the equivalent of a closed and locked door to your home—or is it more like it was in Trump’s case, where others have a right to read what you have to say whether you want them to or not? Do public figures and politicians have a different set of rules for Twitter use as a result of their status and occupation? Do we all become private accounts who need to manually accept followers in order to safeguard some sense of privacy? Who will regulate threats and incitements of violence now that Twitter can’t use its own policies and discretion? Will we see more and more slander and defamation lawsuits? What of the fact that there are no borders or boundaries in place between users in different countries, which have different laws and norms? How do we arbitrate interactions there? Who decides? How will anonymity—a necessity for some, given their circumstances, and yet also a liability for others—affect these policies?
I’m not sure that there are satisfactory answers to these questions, or that there even can be. As has been true with the Internet since its inception, we are in largely new and frequently bizarre territory, and easy answers are hard to come by. What I do know is that for Twitter or any other platform to truly become what we’re all pretending it is, a lot would have to change and almost nobody would like it. For one thing, Elon Musk wouldn’t be the one making these decisions, because Twitter being a legitimate public square would mean it is no longer a private company whose terms of service are at the whim of whomever owns it.
I am as absolutist about free speech as they come—I believe anyone should be able to say whatever they like, and anyone else should be able to say whatever they like about it—but even I can see that what we currently have on platforms like Twitter is nothing like what we have in the real world. What we have is a Starbucks, and it’s been working out as a co-working space for most of us so far. The moment it doesn’t, however, we’ll have to check our sense of entitlement to that comfy chair and free wi-fi, because we have no right to it and never have. We can appeal to Elon Musk if we want, and he may fancy himself the owner of a legitimate bastion of free speech, but all of this is pantomime. If we’d like to change that state of affairs, we shouldn’t dupe ourselves into thinking we can merely declare it so. In the meantime, we’re going to have to recognize that we are currently opting into something that we, as users, have little-to-no say over its management—and Elon Musk is going to have to stop pretending he spent $44 billion on anything other than a place that serves coffee.