Elon Musk Demonstrates How Little He Understands About Content Moderation

from the not-how-any-of-this-works dept

A number of discuss yesterday as Elon Musk made a hostile takeover bid for all of Twitter. This was at all times a risk, and one which we mentioned earlier than in taking a look at how little Musk appeared to know about free speech. However quickly after the bid was made public, Musk went on stage at TED to be interviewed by Chris Anderson and spoke extra about his ideas on Twitter and content material moderation.

It’s price watching, although largely for the way it reveals how very, little or no Musk understands about all of this. Certainly, what struck me about his views is how a lot they sound like what the techies who initially created social media mentioned within the early days. And right here’s the essential bit: all of them finally discovered that their simplistic perception in how issues ought to work doesn’t work in actuality and have spent the previous few many years making an attempt to iterate. And Musk ignores all of that whereas (considerably hilariously) suggesting that each one of these issues could be discovered finally, regardless of all the onerous work many, many overworked and underpaid folks have been doing figuring precisely that out, solely to be instructed by Musk he’s certain they’re doing it unsuitable.

As a result of these posts have a tendency to draw very, very offended people who find themselves very, very certain of themselves on this subject they don’t have any expertise with, I’d ask that earlier than any of you scream within the feedback, please learn all of Prof. Kate Klonick’s seminal paper on the historical past of content material moderation and free speech referred to as The New Governors. It’s troublesome to take significantly anybody on this subject who is just not conscious of the historical past.

However, only for enjoyable, let’s undergo what Musk mentioned. Anderson asks Musk why he desires to purchase Twitter and Elon responds:

Effectively, I believe it’s actually essential for there to be an inclusive area without cost speech. Twitter has grow to be the de facto city sq., so, it’s actually essential that folks have each the truth and the notion that they’re capable of converse freely inside the bounds of the regulation. And one of many issues I consider Twitter ought to do is open supply the algorithm, and make any adjustments to folks’s tweets — in the event that they’re emphasised or de-emphasized — that ought to be made obvious in order that anybody can see that motion has been taken.  So there’s no kind of behind-the-scenes manipulation, both algorithmically or manually.

First, once more, this is similar kind of factor that early Twitter and Fb and different platform folks mentioned within the early days. After which they came upon it doesn’t work for causes that can be mentioned shortly. Second, Twitter is just not the city sq., and it’s a ridiculous analogy. The web itself is the city sq.. Twitter is only one personal store in that city sq. with its personal guidelines.

Anderson asks Musk why he desires to take over Twitter when Musk had apparently instructed him simply final week that taking on the corporate would result in everybody blaming him for all the things that went unsuitable, and Musk responds that issues will nonetheless go unsuitable and you need to anticipate that. And he’s right, however what’s notable right here is how he’s asking for a stage of understanding that he refuses to offer Twitter itself. Twitter has spent 15 years experimenting and iterating its insurance policies to take care of a wide range of extremely complicated and troublesome challenges, nuances, and trade-offs, and as Musk demonstrates later on this interview, he’s not even begun to assume by means of any of them.

My robust intuitive sense is that having a public platform that’s maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extraordinarily essential to the way forward for civilization.

Once more, this is similar kind of issues that the founders of those web sites mentioned… till they needed to take care of the precise challenges of working such platforms at scale. And, I ought to be aware, anybody who’s spent any time in any respect engaged on these points is aware of that “maximally trusted” requires some stage of moderation, as a result of in any other case platforms refill with spam and scams (extra on that later) and usually are not trusted in any respect. There’s a cause these efforts are put below the banner of “belief & security.”

Lastly, the “public platform” is the web. And belief is earned, however opening up a platform broadly doesn’t encourage belief. Being broadly inclusive and reliable additionally requires recognizing that dangerous actors must be handled in some kind or one other. That is what folks have spent over a decade engaged on. And Musk acts prefer it’s a model new difficulty.

And so then we get to the inevitable level of any such dialogue by which Musk admits that in fact some moderation is essential.

Chris Anderson: You’ve described your self as a free speech absolutist. Does that imply that there’s actually nothing that folks can’t say and it’s okay?

Elon Musk: Effectively, I believe, clearly Twitter or any discussion board is sure by the legal guidelines of the nation it operates in. So, clearly there are some limitations on free speech within the US. And naturally, Twitter must abide by these guidelines.

CA: Proper. So you may’t incite folks to violence, like direct incitement to violence… like, you may’t do the equal of crying fireplace in a movie show, for instance.

EM: No, that might be a criminal offense (laughs). It ought to be a criminal offense.

And all of the free speech specialists scream out in unison on the false notion of “fireplace in a crowded theater.”

However simply the truth that Musk (1) agrees with this sentiment and (2) thinks that it will clearly be a criminal offense reveals how little he truly understands about free speech or the legal guidelines governing free speech. As a reminder for many who don’t know, the “fireplace in a crowded theater” line was a non-binding rhetorical apart in a case that was used to lock up a protestor for handing out anti-war literature (not precisely free speech supportive), and the Supreme Court docket Justice who used the phrase principally denounced it in rulings quickly after — and the case that it got here from was successfully overturned a number of many years later, within the new case that arrange the precise customary that Anderson suggests about incitement to imminent lawless motion (which, generally, crying fireplace in a theater completely wouldn’t attain).

Anderson then tries (however principally fails) to get into a few of the nuance of content material moderation. It might have been good if he’d truly spoken to, effectively, anybody with any expertise within the area, as a result of his examples aren’t simply laughable, they’re form of pathetic.

CA: However right here’s the problem, as a result of it’s such a nuanced between various things. So, there’s incitement to violence, that’s a no if it’s unlawful. There’s hate speech, which some types of hate speech are positive. I… hate… spinach.

Initially, “I hate spinach” is just not hate speech. I imply, of all of the examples you would pull out… that’s not an instance of hate speech (and we’ll depart apart Musk’s joke response, suggesting that for those who cooked spinach proper it’s good). However, way more importantly, right here’s the place Anderson and Elon may have confronted the precise difficulty which is that, within the US, hate speech is fully protected below the first Modification. And, we’ve defined why that is truly essential and an excellent factor, as a result of in locations the place hate speech is in opposition to the regulation, these legal guidelines are steadily abused to silence authorities critics.

However conserving hate speech authorized may be very totally different from saying that any personal web site should hold that speech on the platform. Certainly, conserving hate speech on a non-public platform takes away from the supposed “belief” and “broadly inclusive” nature Musk claimed to need. That will be an fascinating level to debate with Musk — and as a substitute we’re left discussing what’s one of the best ways to cook dinner spinach.

Anderson once more sorta weakly tries to get extra to the purpose, however nonetheless doesn’t appear to know sufficient concerning the precise challenges of content material moderation to have a critical dialogue of the difficulty:

CA: So let’s say… right here’s one tweet: ‘I hate politician X.’ Subsequent tweet is ‘I want politician X wasn’t alive.’ As a few of us have mentioned about Putin, proper now for instance. In order that’s respectable speech. One other tweet is ‘I want Politician X wasn’t alive’ with an image of their head with a gunsight over it. Or that plus their handle. I imply in some unspecified time in the future, somebody has to decide as to which of these is just not okay. Can an algorithm try this, or absolutely you want human judgment in some unspecified time in the future.

Initially, broadly talking all the above are protected below the first Modification. Considerably extremely, his ultimate hypothetical is one I can discuss straight, as a result of I used to be an professional witness in a case the place a man was dealing with prison prices for actually Photoshopping gunsights over authorities officers, and the jury discovered him not responsible. However, additionally broadly talking, there are many respectable explanation why a non-public platform wouldn’t need to host that content material. Partly, that will get again to the “maximally trusted” and “broadly inclusive” factors.

However, on prime of that, none of these examples are hate speech. Hate speech is just not, as Chris Anderson bizarrely appears to consider, saying “I hate X.” Hate speech is usually seen as types of expression designed to harass, humiliate, or incite hatred in opposition to a bunch or class of individuals based mostly on numerous traits about them (typically together with issues like race, faith, sexual id, ethnicity, incapacity, and so on.). The examples he raises usually are not, actually, hate speech.

Both method, right here’s the place Elon reveals how little he understands any of this, and the way unfamiliar he’s with all that’s occurred on this area previously twenty years.

For my part, Twitter ought to match the legal guidelines of the nation. And, actually, there’s an obligation to do this. However going past that, and having or not it’s unclear who’s making what adjustments to who… to the place… having tweets mysteriously be promoted and demoted with out perception into what’s happening, having a black field algorithm promote some issues and never different issues, I believe these issues could be fairly harmful.

Once more, within the US, the legal guidelines say that such speech is protected, however that’s not an inexpensive reply. We’ve gone by means of this earlier than. Parler claimed it will solely average speech that violated the regulation after which flipped out when it realized that folks had been getting on the location to mock Parler’s supporters or to publish porn (which can also be protected by the first Modification). Merely saying that moderation ought to observe the regulation typically reveals that one has by no means truly tried to average something. As a result of it’s way more difficult than that, as Musk will implicitly admit afterward on this interview, with out the self-awareness to see how he’s contradicting himself.

There’s then a barely extra fascinating dialogue of open sourcing the algorithm, which is its personal can of worms that I’m undecided Musk understands. I’m all for extra transparency, and the flexibility for competing algorithms to be obtainable for moderation, however open sourcing it’s totally different and never as easy as Musk appears to indicate. Initially, it’s usually not the algorithm that’s the difficulty. Second, algorithms which might be constructed up in a proprietary stack usually are not really easy to only randomly “open supply” with out revealing all types of different stuff. Third, the most important beneficiaries of open sourcing the rating algorithm can be spammers (which is doubly amusing as a result of in just some moments Musk goes to whine about spammers). Open sourcing the algorithm can be most fascinating to these seeking to abuse and sport the system to advertise their very own stuff.

We all know this. We’ve seen it. There’s a cause why Google’s search algorithm has grow to be increasingly opaque through the years. Not as a result of it’s making an attempt to suppress folks, however as a result of the individuals who had been most thinking about understanding the way it all labored had been search engine spammers. Open sourcing the Twitter algorithm would do the identical factor.

Chris then will get again to the moderation course of (once more in a barely confused method about how Twitter belief & security truly works), mentioning that “the algorithm” might be much less of a difficulty than all of the human moderators, main Musk to present a really lengthy pause earlier than stumbling by means of a little bit of a word-salad response:

Effectively, I…I… I believe we might need to err on the facet… if unsure, let… let… let the speech… let it exist. It might have… if it’s.. uh… a grey space, I might say, l would say let the tweet exist. However… clearly… in a case the place maybe there’s a number of controversy the place maybe you’d not need to essentially promote that tweet, you recognize… so…so… so… I’m not saying I’ve all of the solutions right here, however I do assume that we need to be very reluctant to delete issues and be very cautious with everlasting bans. I believe time outs are higher than everlasting bans. 

However simply basically, like I mentioned, it received’t be good however I believe we need to actually have the notion and actuality that speech is as free as is fairly doable and an excellent signal as as to whether there’s free speech, is ‘is somebody you don’t like allowed to say one thing you don’t like.’ And if that’s the case, then you’ve gotten free speech. And it’s rattling annoying when somebody you don’t like says one thing you don’t like. That may be a signal of a wholesome, functioning free speech state of affairs.

Once more, a lot to unpack right here. First off, that strategy of “when unsure, let it exist” has virtually at all times been the default place of the main social media firms from the start. Once more, it’s essential to return to issues like Klonick’s paper which describes all this. It’s simply that over time anybody who’s carried out this shortly learns that fuzzy requirements like “when unsure” don’t work in any respect, particularly at scale. You want particular guidelines that may be simply understood and rolled out to hundreds of moderators all over the world. Guidelines that may take note of native legal guidelines, native contexts, native customs. It’s not practically so simple as Musk makes it out to be.

Certainly, to get to the spot that we’re in now, principally all of those firms began with that very same premise, realized it wasn’t workable, after which iterated. And Musk is principally saying “I’ve a superb thought: let’s return to step 1 and faux not one of the issues specialists on this area have discovered over the previous decade truly occurred.”

And, once more, Twitter and Fb — simply as Musk claims he desires — are inclined to lean in direction of time outs over everlasting bans, however each acknowledge that malicious actors finally will simply hold making an attempt, so some folks you’ll have to ban. However Musk pretends like that is some deep knowledge when each web site with any moderation in any respect knew this ages in the past. Together with Twitter.

Second, his definition of free speech is utter nonsense (and ridiculously acquired an enormous applause from the viewers). That’s not the definition of free speech and whether it is, then Twitter already has that. Tons of individuals I dislike are allowed to say issues I dislike. You see that throughout Twitter. However that’s not an inexpensive or enforceable customary in any respect with out context. The issue is just not “somebody I dislike saying one thing I dislike” the issue is spam, abuse, harassment, threats of violence, dangerously deceptive false info, and extra. Musk not understanding any of that’s only a illustration of how little he understands this subject.

Anderson then asks Musk about what adjustments he would make to Twitter, main Musk to principally contradict all the things he simply mentioned and go straight to banning speech on Twitter:

Frankly, the highest precedence I might have is eliminating the spam and rip-off bots and the bot armies which might be on Twitter. You understand, I believe, these affect… they make the product a lot worse. 

Um, practically all of these are authorized (the rip-off ones are a bit extra hazy there, however the spam ones are authorized speech). And simply the truth that he acknowledges that they make the product a lot worse underlines how confused he’s about all the things else. Coping with the issues that “make the product a lot worse” is the underlying level of any belief & security content material moderation program — and tons and tons of labor, and analysis, and testing have gone into how Twitter (and each different platform) tries to handle these issues, they usually all just about find yourself on the identical place.

To take care of the spam and the scams and the issues that “make the product a lot worse” you need to have guidelines, and you need to have enforcement that offers with the individuals who break the foundations, that means that you need to have folks educated about content material moderation and who’re capable of iterate and alter, particularly within the face of malicious actors making an attempt to sport the system.

However it’s fairly unbelievable for him to say “just about depart it up if it’s authorized” one second, and the subsequent second say his prime precedence is to eliminate spam. Spam is authorized.

And, once more, as anybody who has lived by means of (or learn up on) the historical past of content material moderation is aware of, platforms all went by means of this actual course of. The method that Musk thinks nobody has truly carried out. All of them began with a elementary default in direction of permitting extra speech and moderating much less. They usually all realized over time that it’s much more nuanced than that.

All of them realized that there are large trade-offs to each choice, however that some selections nonetheless must be made so as to cease “making the product worse” and to determine methods to construct “maximal belief” and to be “broadly inclusive.” In different phrases, for all of Musk’s complaining, Twitter has already carried out all of the work he appears to faux it hasn’t carried out. And his “answer” is to return to sq. one whereas ignoring all of the individuals who discovered concerning the pitfalls, challenges, nuances, and trade-offs of the varied approaches to coping with these items… and to faux that nobody has carried out any work on this space.

Each time I publish about this, Musk’s followers get offended and demand I couldn’t probably perceive this higher than Musk. And, once more, I truly actually admire Musk’s potential to current visions and get the businesses he’s run to realize these visions. However coping with human speech isn’t about constructing a automobile, a robotic, a tunnel, or a rocket ship. It’s about coping with human beings, human nature, and society.

None of that is to say that, if Musk does succeed within the bid, he doesn’t have the fitting to make these large steps again to sq. one. After all he has each proper to make these errors. However it will be a disappointing transfer for Twitter, an organization that has been extra considerate, extra cautious, and extra superior than many different firms on this area. And it will seemingly wipe out the essential institutional information round all of this that has been so useful.

I do know that the narrative — which Musk has apparently purchased into — is that Twitter’s content material moderation efforts are focused at stifling conservatives. There’s, but once more, no precise proof to help this. If something, Twitter and Fb have bent over backwards to be further accommodating to these pushing the boundaries so as to use Twitter primarily as a platform to rile up these they dislike. However, from understanding how a lot effort Twitter has truly put into understanding interventions and how you can construct a reliable platform, I worry that what Musk would do with it will be a large step backwards and a common loss for the world.

Extremely, there’s a reasonably good analogy to all of this earlier in that video. At first, Anderson performs a snippet of a taped interview he did with Musk per week in the past (after they weren’t certain if he’d be capable to attend in particular person). And in that interview, Anderson factors out that Musk predicted to Anderson 5 years in the past that Tesla would have full self-driving working that yr, and it clearly has not come to cross. Musk jokes about how he’s not at all times proper, and explains that he’s solely now realized that simply how onerous an issue driverless synthetic intelligence is, and he talks about how each time it appears to be transferring ahead it hits an surprising ceiling.

The easy truth is that coping with human nature and human communication is way, a lot, way more complicated than educating a automobile how you can drive by itself. And there’s no good answer. There isn’t a “congrats, we acquired there” second in content material moderation. As a result of people are complicated and ever-changing. And content material moderation on a platform like Twitter is about recognizing that complexity and determining methods to take care of it. However Musk appears to be treating it as if it’s the identical kind of problem as self-driving — the place for those who simply throw sufficient concepts at it you’ll magically repair it. However, even worse than that, he doesn’t understand that the individuals who have truly labored on this discipline for years have been making the form of progress he talked about with self-driving vehicles — getting the curve to maneuver in the fitting path, earlier than hitting some kind of ceiling. And Musk desires to take all of them the best way again to the bottom flooring for no cause apart from he doesn’t appear to acknowledge that any of the work that’s already been carried out.

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