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It’s kind of a rite of passage for any new social media network. They show up, insist that they’re the “platform for free speech” without quite understanding what that actually means, and then they quickly discover a whole bunch of fairly fundamental ideas, institute a bunch of rapid (often sloppy) changes… and in the end, they basically all end up in the same general vicinity, with just a few small differences on the margin. Look, I went through it myself. In the early days I insisted that sites shouldn’t do any moderation at all, including my own. But I learned. As did Parler, Gettr, Truth Social and lots of others.

Anyway, Elon’s in a bit of a different position, because rather than starting something new, he’s taken over a large platform. I recognize that he, his buddies, and a whole lot of other people think that Twitter is especially bad at this, and that he’s got some special ideas for “bringing free speech back,” but the reality is that Twitter was, by far, the most successful platform at taking a “we support free speech” stance for content, and learned over time the many nuances and tradeoffs involved.

And because I do hope that Musk succeeds and Twitter remains viable, I wanted to see if we might help him (and anyone else) speed run the basics of the content moderation learning curve that most newbies run into. The order of the levels and the seriousness of each can change over time, and how it all fits together may be somewhat different, but, in the end, basically every major social media platform ends up in this same place eventually (the place Twitter was already at when Musk insisted he needed to tear things down and start again).

Level One: “We’re the free speech platform! Anything goes!”

Cool. Cool. The bird is free! Everyone rejoice.

“Excuse me, boss, we’re getting reports that there are child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSAM) images and videos on the site.”

Oh shit. I guess we should take that down.

Level Two: “We’re the free speech platform! But no CSAM!”

Alright, comedy is now legal on the site. Everyone rejoice. Everyone love me.

“Um, boss. We have a huge stack of emails from Hollywood, saying something about DMCA takedowns?”

Oh right. Copyright infringement is bad. Get another intern and have them take that all down.

Level Three: “We’re the free speech platform! But no CSAM and no infringement!”

Power to the people. Freedom is great!

“Right, boss, apparently because you keep talking about freedom, a large group of people are taking it to mean they have ‘freedom’ to harass people with slurs and all sorts of abuse. People are leaving the site because of it, and advertisers are pulling ads.”

That seems bad. Quick, have someone write up some rules against hate speech.

Level Four: “We’re the free speech platform without CSAM, infringement or hate speech!”

Bringing freedom back is hard work, but this is all going great. Do the people love me yet?

“Hey, so, the FBI is here? Something about 18 USC 2258A and how we were supposed to report all of that CSAM to some operation called NCMEC?”

Ah, right. Grab an intern and make sure they pass along those images. We obey all the laws!

Level Five: “We’re the free speech platform without CSAM, infringement, or hate speech, and we follow all laws!”

These laws are good. We obey the laws. Social media is a snap.

“Hate to bother you, boss, but our users are mad again. It seems that people are posting memes using images from Hollywood movies, and then the studios sent DMCA notices, and as you ordered, the intern is taking those down. So people are getting mad at you for censoring the memes.”

That seems complicated. Can we have the intern send some of these to our outside counsel to review for fair use before pulling them down?

Level Six: “We’re the free speech platform, without CSAM or hate speech, and who will take down infringing content, but not fair use content, and we follow all laws!”

The memes must flow! Hooray fair use! Love me!

“Very good boss. Love the memes, but, um, there’s a NY Times reporter on the phone, and apparently, we’re not catching all the CSAM, and they’re going to run a story about how we’ve become the new hub for pedophiles.”

That can’t be good… There must be some sort of solution out there? Have someone call up Microsoft and get a license to their PhotoDNA. Surely that will solve this?

Level Seven: “We’re the free speech platform, doing our best to stop CSAM, hate speech, and infringement, and we follow all laws!”

Okay, now things are really coming together.

“Pardon me, boss, people are now complaining that they’re getting inundated with spam and it’s driving users away.”

Spam is bad! Everyone’s against spam! I already said we follow all laws, surely spam is illegal! Why aren’t we blocking it?

“Well, our lawyers say that most spam is actually legal.”

Okay, well ask one of our totally awesome engineers to code up a spam filter. He has one week or he’s fired.

Level Eight: “We’re the free speech platform, doing our best to stop CSAM, hate speech, infringement and spam, and we follow all laws!”

Now that the spam is getting blocked, the people will really love me!

“Good evening sir, sorry to bother you so late, but apparently the spam and CSAM filters are actually catching a lot of legitimate content, and it’s making people mad.”

Fire the engineers! Bring me new engineers who don’t suck. And, I guess, maybe hire someone to manage at least some of these things. We can call them… “director of trust.” That sounds good!

Level Nine: “We’re the trustworthy free speech platform, doing our best to stop CSAM, hate speech, infringement, and spam, and we follow all the laws!”

Trust. That’s a good word! Everyone trusts our platform now that we have a director of trust!

“Pardon me, boss, but it appears we have an urgent email from government officials in Malaysia saying that someone is posting a story to our site that violates their laws, though it’s really just calling out government corruption. You say we follow all laws, so do we follow this demand from the government of Malaysia?”

Yikes. People need to speak truth to power! Let’s leave that content up!

“Okay, sir, Malaysia has now blocked all access to our site.”

Level Ten: “We’re the trustworthy free speech platform, doing our best to stop CSAM, hate speech, infringement, and spam, and we follow laws of democratic countries.”

Malaysia can’t be that important. I’m standing up for free speech! Do people love me yet?

“Hi boss, if you have a second, we’re getting reports that people in Myanmar are using our service to encourage genocide. But we don’t have anyone who speaks the language to fully understand what’s going on.”

Can we hire moderators who understand every language?

“There are a lot of languages.”

Well, it’s either hire more people or block entire countries… I guess?

Level Eleven: “We’re the trustworthy mostly free speech platform, doing our best to stop CSAM, hate speech, infringement, spam, and genocide, and we’re working to hire more moderators to deal with foreign languages.”

It seems like global politics is complicated, but maybe I’ll present my suggestions on world peace, so that people will love me!

“Forgive the interruption, boss, but a lot of our most active users are getting angry at you specifically, because the hate speech, spam, and copyright filters are blocking their dank memes, and sometimes they’re getting removed from the platform for violating the rules too many times. They think you’re sitting here and removing their accounts personally.”

Why does everyone blame me?!? Okay, let’s set up a “trust council” who will handle all content moderation questions and appeals.

Level Twelve: “We’re the trustworthy social media site that supports open dialogue, while doing our best to stop CSAM, hate speech, infringement, spam, and genocide, and we’re working to hire more trust and safety professionals, along with setting up an outside counsel.”

Hmm. Our slogan is getting a bit long.

“Sorry to break in again, boss, but Germany, one of our largest EU markets, has a new law that requires us to take down any ‘hate speech’ within a short time, and if we miss anything, then they can fine us way more than we can afford.”

Hire more people in Germany and now review reports as much as possible, but default to taking down reported content. We can’t afford those fines, even if we end up over-blocking.

Level Thirteen: “We’re the trustworthy social media network, that’s doing our best to balance laws and norms, and is really trying to be welcoming for speech, so please give us the benefit of the doubt.”

Why is everyone so mad at me all the time?

“Yeah, boss, I know you’re sick of hearing from me, but Hollywood is suing us. They’re saying that our fair use determinations are bullshit and we’re engaging in infringement.”

Hire more lawyers! Figure out how much this lawsuit will cost, or see if we can just pay some licensing fee! Have an engineer write up a filter that can determine fair use!

“I don’t think a computer can determine fair use yet, sir.”

Hire BETTER engineers! If a car can drive itself, surely a computer can understand fair use!

Level Fourteen: “We’re a social network that promotes trust, and seeks to comply with reasonable laws while finding a balance for speech, and please stop yelling at us.”

Why are people still so mad?

“Excuse me, boss, I know this is exhausting, but one of our most popular users has chained themselves to our front door, because we took down their account after they harassed someone trying to minimize the impact of climate change.”

Why are people so bad?

Level Fifteen: “We’re a social network that wants you to believe in trust, and we have a legal team to deal with laws, and a trust and safety team that’s, you know, working on things.”

This is exhausting.

“Hey, boss, sorry to interrupt, but this is kind of urgent. It seems that one of our users is livestreaming themselves as they shoot up a school, screaming about ‘freedom!’”

Oh no! Take down his account immediately.

Level Sixteen: “We’re a social network that is really trying to do our best, but humanity is messy.”

Why can’t people just be good? I gave them freedom and look what they’ve done with it!

“Boss, boss, another urgent one. It seems that one of our users is attempting suicide while live streaming on the platform and we can’t figure out where they are!”

Don’t we know our users? Figure out better ways to have this info and hire more people to work on trust and safety!

Level Seventeen: “We’re a social network that is trying our best. Please, be kind.”

I just wanted people to love me and be free to meme.

“Excuse me, boss, it appears that the EU has passed a new law that means we’ll be required to take down content they report, even if it’s legal elsewhere. They’re praising you for your promise from last year to obey all laws. Also, it requires that we have employees in every one of those countries who will be legally responsible if we fail.”

Why did I say that? Oh well, let’s hire more people to staff up, and do our best to obey those laws.

Level Eighteen: “We’re a social network doing our best to survive in a globally connected world.”

Mars is looking pretty sweet about now.

“Pardon me again, boss, but now that you’ve agreed to abide by the EU’s laws, I should note that India has passed laws that sound similar to the EU ones you agreed to abide by, and now they’re threatening to jail your local employees because you won’t take down content mocking the Prime Minister. They’re saying that since you abide by the EU’s laws, they expect you to abide by theirs as well.”

India is a massive market. We can’t survive without India. Can we, um, take down maybe some of the worst posts for violating our rules, and try to leave up the rest?

Level Nineteen: “We’re a social network doing our best in this crazy world.”

I just wanted everyone to love me?

“Boss, apologies, but our most famous and popular user, the President, is encouraging his vocal fans to burn down our offices because we put a fact check on his post urging people to strangle anyone with differing political views.”

Do you think someone will buy us?

Level Twenty: “Look, we’re just a freaking website. Can’t you people behave?”

Congratulations, you have completed the game…. Just kidding! It never ends. It only gets worse, and you will make mistakes, and people will get mad and personally blame you and insist that you are deliberately trying to “censor” their brilliant ideas, and advertisers will get mad, and politicians will pressure you into doing their bidding, and the media will criticize every mistake. You own a social network. Isn’t it fun?

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By Heisenberg Media (Flickr: Elon Musk - The Summit 2013) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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