Who are the beneficiaries of 'free speech'?
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Who are the beneficiaries of 'free speech'?

How is it that a man who has banned 83 million people from Twitter can freely use the platform to post his messages denigrating women and supporting the brutal attack on the writer Salman Rushdie? I'm referring to the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose government is killing young women who want to be able to show their hair in public.

For several years, the Iranian-American activist Masih Alinejad has been calling for Ayatollah Khamenei to be banned from Twitter. Opposition to him does indeed require courage, as is evident from the attack on Rushdie last August, which can be traced to the 1989 fatwa issued by his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, condemning Rushdie to death for blasphemy.

Now that Elon Musk has purchased Twitter, the campaign to ban Ayatollah Khamenei is seeking to influence him. In a recent letter directed to Twitter's advertisers, Mr Musk wrote that he acquired Twitter because "it is important to the future of civilisation to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence." Otherwise, Mr Musk warns, the opportunity for dialogue on social media will split into "far right-wing and far left-wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society."

I share Mr Musk's concern about what he calls "the woke mind virus" -- the readiness to attack people who advocate positions that are perceived as politically incorrect -- and the absence of genuine dialogue across the political spectrum. That is why I am one of the founding editors of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, which has just published its third issue. Like Twitter, our journal offers the option of publishing under a pseudonym, though in other respects we are poles apart. Twitter limits messages to 280 characters, whereas we accept articles up to 12,000 words. Not coincidentally, 240 million people use Twitter, while we were pleased to get 50,000 views -- a lot for an academic journal -- in our first year.

Mr Musk's reference to debating beliefs in a "healthy manner" is open to various interpretations, some of them highly restrictive of free speech. But whatever it means, the question remains how it can be done. At the Journal, we send all articles that pass an initial screen to experts for independent review, in a form that does not identify the author, and we treat responses to the articles we publish in a similar manner. We are looking for well-reasoned arguments, not polemics.

Since our initial call for papers more than a year ago, we have received close to 300 submissions; our current acceptance rate is 12%. Twitter, by contrast, has 6,000 new posts every second. Even for a US$44 billion company, employing enough people to vet that many tweets is not economically viable -- and Mr Musk is reportedly planning to fire about 25% of Twitter employees, rather than hiring more. Artificial intelligence could be the answer, but it isn't, at present, able to distinguish reliably between tweets that make positive contributions to debates and those that promote the very hatred and social division that Mr Musk wants to prevent.

Mr Musk has described himself as a "free speech absolutist". He greeted his successful takeover of Twitter, which has a blue bird as its logo, by tweeting, "the bird is freed." Lifting all restrictions on what can be posted on Twitter, however, is not the way to promote debate in a "healthy manner" between people with very different starting points. That much is clear from the more than 1,200 racist and anti-Semitic tweets and retweets that appeared on the site in a coordinated campaign timed to Mr Musk's completion of his purchase.

To achieve Mr Musk's laudable goal, a distinction needs to be drawn between speech that appeals to reason and evidence, or seeks to broaden our empathy and understanding, in an effort to persuade us to change our mind, and speech that seeks to vilify others and stir up hatred against them.

Mr Musk may have come to realise this. After taking over the company, he tweeted about forming a "content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints" and said that the company would not take "major content decisions or account reinstatements" until "that council convenes". One issue for such a body to consider is whether Twitter should provide a platform to someone who defends a subordinate social status for women and advocates the death penalty for speech that his religion considers to be blasphemy.

Control of a platform like Twitter has put great power -- and therefore great responsibility -- in the hands of a single individual. Much will depend on Mr Musk, and the members of the content moderation council he appoints, to exercise that responsibility well.©2022 Project Syndicate

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, is Founder of the charity The Life You Can Save. His books include 'Practical Ethics'.

Peter Singer

Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include 'Animal Liberation', 'Practical Ethics', 'The Point of View of the Universe' (with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek), and, most recently, 'The Most Good You Can Do'.

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