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Twitter rewrites its relationship to free speech


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At Motherboard, Sarah Jeong traces the history of Twitter’s official rules (“Twitter Rules”), which at first were relatively brief, but have since doubled in length after multiple Twitter harassment scandals and problems with the company’s bottom line. Here’s a snippet:

The gradual changes in the Twitter Rules reflect a story about Twitter, and shine light on the story that Twitter has tried to tell about itself. The latest changes in the Rules represent a significant rewriting of both the Rules and of the mythology that Twitter projects about itself.

Throughout the years, Twitter has billed itself as an anti-censorship platform, at one point even calling itself the “free speech wing of the free speech party.”

But changes in the Rules over time reflect the pragmatic reality of running a business. Twitter talked some big talk, but it has buckled under both lawsuits and media outrage, tweaking and changing the Rules around speech whenever something threatened its bottom line. For a business, free speech can only be a meaningful value if it doesn’t really cost anything …

In a way, things were easier when Twitter was still the free speech wing of the free speech party. In the golden age of Twitter’s free speech brand, the company was often lauded for doing the “hard” thing when standing up to governments worldwide. In retrospect, this corporate hardheadedness was easier to pull off than what they’re doing now, where speech is policed in the name of free speech.

This isn’t to say that Twitter has arrived at a contradiction. This new state of affairs is probably an inevitable conclusion that reflects the complexities of human interaction under democratic ideals. We’ve long known that speech can censor other speech—it’s a First Amendment problem known as the “heckler’s veto.” But again, Twitter’s new approach is hard to pull off. The Twitter of today strikes an uneasy balance between its old self and the unapologetic, ideologically-unburdened censoriousness of Facebook and Instagram. It remains yet to be seen whether the company has the vision and creativity to live out its new identity.

Image: Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey with President Obama during a 2011 Twitter town hall at the White House. Via Motherboard.