Elon Musk is the master of Twitter.  We are the villagers

It’s Elon Musk’s seventh day owning Twitterand he makes announcements about stream-of-consciousness politics in the thread on the platform. Musk promises to end “the current system of lords and peasants on Twitter” while rolling out plans for users to pay $8 per month to remain verified and have their posts prioritized in ‘replies, mentions and search’.

In less than a week, he fired senior executives, dissolved the company’s board of directors, used the site to distribution homophobic lie about the attack on Paul Pelosi, and unilaterally restricting employee access to content moderation tools. With every statement he makes, he makes instant decisions that affect hundreds of millions of people, our democracy, and the future of free expression online.

Musk writes things like “people power,” but reality sets in: Musk is the master and we are all peasants.

In the kingdoms of Silicon Valley, we humble consumers have no choice but to seek out the most benevolent monarch we can find, start farming in the shadow of their castle, and hope for the best. Musk seems eminently unsuited to work on a social media platform, and his chaotic ascension to the throne likely foreshadows his reign.

Read more: In Twitter’s chaotic first weekend under Elon Musk

But even if he was the bold, stand-up super genius that his supporters seem to think he is, Musk claim that “the bird is set free” would be a boast at best. The truth is, we will never have meaningful freedom of speech or human rights as long as we are all digitally landless, paying rent in dollars or data. If we want a modern city square that we can leave to our children and our children’s children, we must build online spaces that cannot be owned or controlled by one person, with tools to address the harm, harassment and injustice that they give of people and communities have power over our own online experience.

It’s hard to piece together a coherent ideology from Musk’s online musings, but it’s fair to say he bought Twitter because he believes social media platforms are too heavy-handed and arbitrary in how they enforce their content moderation policies and speech. I actually agree with him on that. He is simply wrong about who is most affected by online censorship and how to fix it.

While conservatives would have us all think that heterosexual white male Trump supporters are the most oppressed group on social media, the data shows that black and brown people, women, religious minorities and LGBTQ+ people are actually the most likely to have posts, videos removed demonetizedor accounts stopped without good reason. Sex workers and adult content creators are the most directly targetedafter being kicked out of most major platforms, and facing almost constant uncertainty for the few remaining.

People from marginalized communities face another major obstacle to free speech online: pervasive harassment, threats of violence, and hateful content, leading to toxic online spaces where many people they don’t feel safe enough to express themselves. We’re often led to believe that the only solution to this is to demand that digital rulers use their near-absolute power more responsibly and do a better job monitoring harmful and harassing posts. In the short term, pushing for better, more transparent and more evenly applied content moderation is a valid harm reduction strategy.

But we have to recognize the trade-offs. When we ask for-profit platforms with millions of users to remove more content faster, it inevitably leads to over removal of legal content, p collateral damage disproportionate impact on marginalized people and communities outside the mainstream. Black Lives Matter organizers are documented model of over-removal in major platforms. After the Dobbs decision, abortion access activists did reported an rise in suspensions and censored publications. Automated “anti-terrorist” filters used by Twitter and other major platforms systematically suppress content from human rights defenders in Arab and Muslim countries. Platforms often say such posts were removed “in error.” But these systematic errors have a real impact on marginalized people’s ability to express themselves and be heard.

Even truly well-intentioned efforts to moderate content can backfire. For-profit tech giants have all the wrong incentives, whether they are faithful to advertisers or in huge debt to the banks.

Creating online spaces that promote free expression and human rights is not a zero-sum game, it is a constant balancing act. Despite his aspiration anarchist beginning, Twitter has always been far from utopia, whether under Jack Dorsey or Parag Agrawal. Beyond the ongoing privacy and security considerationsthe platform often fails to meaningfully address the targeted bullying and plain old spam, at best enforcing its content rules.

But Twitter has also historically been one of the platforms that at least tries to be creative beyond just using the ban hammer. The site has fulfilled content-agnostic prompts, such as asking if you want to read an article before retweeting it. Such measures create some tension and can help slow the viral spread of harmful content – ​​without the company becoming the arbiter of truth.

Twitter’s legal team have been some of the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment’s right to anonymous speech on a regular basis repulsed against too broad demands of the government. One of Musk’s first moves was to shoot the woman who runs this job.

Read more: Elon Musk is convinced that he is the future. We must look beyond Him

Even worse, Musks proposal to charge “power users” to check and move everyone else to the bottom of the feed threatens the ability for human rights activists, journalists and others to use the platform anonymously while building a significant audience. Even those who can afford Musk’s verification tax may not be able to access Twitter Blue if it means risking being exposed by providing payment or ID information. This is the opposite of preserving free speech and endangers people living under repression modes like Saudi Arabia, one of Musk the biggest investors. And while Elon Musk is the latest to suggest a “white man’s gambit,” like Gillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls itthe evidence is strong that real name rules do nothing to reduce abuse or harassment online.

To be fair, Musk offered a good idea: doing Direct messages on Twitter are end-to-end encrypted so that only the people who send and receive them can read them (something that human rights advocates have been calls for for years.) But here’s the thing: even if King Elon makes positive changes or puts brilliant people in the right positions, they will only serve at the will of the master. He can give us a better Twitter, but he can always take it away from us.

That’s why we need to move past content moderation debates, which amount to dealing with the referees in a game we always lose, and start building a liberating vision for the kind of Internet we want.

There are some models to get you started. “Decentralization” as a buzzword has taken a beating over the past few years from over-hyped cryptocurrencies and blockchain vaporware, but underneath all the fraud and dirt are some valuable ideas on how decentralization can democratize the structure and management of software projects, including social media platforms.

Many people have been Mastodon research, a unified open source social network where one can join or create different communities, each with its own rules and norms. My organization Fight for the Future uses Matrix, a decentralized alternative to Slack, for our virtual office. There’s also Bluesky, started by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who strives to to turn Twitter’s core code into a decentralized protocol that anyone can use to build online communities. Think of social media as more like email: you can choose Gmail or a more privacy-preserving service like ProtonMail, but you can still keep in touch with your friends and change your inbox settings to to fight spam.

The road from here to there is stony. Twitter has often been a cesspool, but it has also been a powerful tool used by activists, artists and revolutionaries fighting for change. I’ve used Twitter as my primary way of communicating with people who would like to hear from me for 11 years – and I regret some of my choices. It’s daunting to think about finding a new home for my personal and professional online life. Even the leading open source alternatives have ways to achieve accessibility, ease of use, and attract enough users to achieve a network effect.

Big Tech monarchies desperate to keep their loyal subjects and the ad revenue we generate aredeliberately made it difficult to leave the kingdom in search of better digital pastures. This is one area where lawmakers can help: they have there’s still a chance after the election for Congress to pass two bipartisan antitrust bills—the American Online Innovation and Choice Act (AICOA) and the Open Application Marketplaces Act (OAMA)—that would smash on the anti-competitive practices and self-dealing that the biggest tech companies use to maintain control.

No one knows what Lord Musk will do with Twitter tomorrow or the day after. It’s time to start fighting for a future where our digital homes don’t tremble precariously on a virtual land controlled by mercurial billionaires.

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