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Elon Musk’s approach to ‘free speech’ on Twitter could make it more difficult for women to speak freely

April 27, 2022, 1:31 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Vice President Kamala Harris tests positive for COVID, hybrid work has some downsides, and “free speech” on Elon Musk’s Twitter may not be free for everyone. Have a wonderful Wednesday.

– Free speech for who? Let’s talk about Twitter. The social media company this week accepted a $44 billion bid from mercurial Tesla CEO Elon Musk to take the company private. The big question is: what’s next for the platform?

Musk has expressed his desire for Twitter to be a haven for “free speech” above all else. “I simply mean that which matches the law,” Musk tweeted yesterday in an effort to explain his position. Opponents argue that there’s a marked difference between First Amendment rights and the rules required on privately-owned social media platforms so that hate speech, violent threats, and misinformation do not run unfettered. As many women who use social media know, putting free speech above online safety can lead to unfortunate consequences.

“What’s potentially concerning about this move is to see the erosion of the limited progress that [Twitter has] made,” says Michael Kleinman, director of Amnesty International’s Silicon Valley initiative. Amnesty International published a 2018 study called “Toxic Twitter: A Toxic Place for Women,” and has followed up in the years since.

Free speech isn’t a new priority for Twitter. For years, the company resisted changes to its content rules that would seemingly conflict with that value, often declining to remove threats, and racist and sexist tweets from the platform. Over the past half-decade, Twitter has taken steps to encourage healthy conversations on the platform, prioritizing values like constructive conversation and respect alongside its initial core belief. Sometimes that has meant prompting users to think twice before posting tweets that contain slurs or other harmful language, and sometimes it has meant a stricter approach to misinformation on the platform (see: the deplatforming of President Donald Trump). Twitter has also revamped its appeals process for removing content.

Still, a less regulated version of Twitter poses the question: free speech for who? Amnesty International’s study found that many women are “no longer able to express themselves freely on the platform without fear of violence or abuse.”

“When Musk speaks about Twitter’s role as a digital town square, that’s incredibly important,” Kleinman says. “When we think of the function and the purpose of the town square, it’s a place where people with wildly different opinions can come and have their voices heard. When we think of a town square, we don’t think of a vicious arena where a howling mob shouts obscenities at anyone who dares show up who looks different than they do.”

Already, the potential consequences of Musk’s stated priorities are clear. Vijaya Gadde, the Twitter executive and lawyer who has overseen the platform’s efforts to decrease misinformation, saw sexist and racist comments flood her mentions after Musk objected in an interview to a decision she made to take down a New York Post story about Hunter Biden that was believed to be false at the time.

Twitter’s new owner must now decide whose definition of free speech wins out—one where healthy debate and respectful conversation are the bedrock of the platform or or one where hate speech is disseminated without safeguards.

If the version of free speech Musk seems to adhere to wins the day, Kleinman argues that ironically, a lessening of free speech could take place. “Fewer and fewer people [will] feel comfortable expressing themselves on the platform,” he says. That should be as big a concern for Twitter’s new owner as any limits on what users can tweet.

Emma Hinchliffe
emma.hinchliffe@fortune.com
@_emmahinchliffe

The Broadsheet is Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. Today’s edition was curated by Paige McGlauflin. Subscribe here.

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