In what seems like another ill-advised move from a PR and advertiser-comfort perspective, Elon Musk's X Corp. is now suing the state of California over a new law that requires social media platforms to make their content moderation policies and methods public.
In the same week that Musk was threatening to sue the Anti-Defamation League for defamation — Musk contends that the ADL's criticism of Twitter and claims about hate speech proliferating there cost the company 60% of its ad revenue in the last year — he also had his attorneys filing suit against the state of California. The suit, as Reuters reports, argues that AB 587, which Governor Newsom signed into law last September, violates the First Amendment as well as the California constitution.
The law established transparency rules for social media firms and their terms of service and content-moderation policies, and includes the provision that companies defines what it considers hate speech, racism, harassment, and "extremism or radicalization."
The complaint argues that the law "compels companies like X Corp. to engage in speech against their will," and calls the act of defining hate speech or racism "politically-charged." It further argues that hate speech is "difficult to reliably define," and that the law's "true intent" is to make companies police speech that the state finds "problematic."
As The Verge notes, "Social media moderation isn’t a solved problem," either legally or practically. And while those who fight against the proliferation of hate speech online may bristle at Musk's talk of "free speech absolutism," there's no saying how the law will come down when it comes to the responsibilities of social media companies.
When it comes to liability for users' speech, the courts have pretty consistently come down on the side of the companies and in support of Section 230 of the 1996 statute that established a lack of liability — law that is credited with giving rise to the internet itself. In May, the Supreme Court again reaffirmed Section 230 in a decision regarding whether YouTube or Twitter could be held liable for pro-ISIS content that may have contributed to deadly terrorist attacks, like the 2015 attack in Paris.
Musk has been arguing that he can have it both ways, by not censoring any speech but by building algorithms that systematically limit the visibility of hateful or racist speech. This would seem to bolster complaints of "shadow banning" that have been made by right-wing pundits for years, but Musk seems to see it as a viable solution that still maintains "free speech." Musk calls this "Freedom of Speech, Not Reach."
As Reuters notes, though, a former employee of X/Twitter, A.J. Brown, who had been heading up the company's brand safety and ad quality team, said in a recent interview that advertisers haven't been convinced by the approach.
"Helping people wrap their minds around the concept that violating a policy would no longer result in the removal of whatever was violating the policy, was a difficult message to communicate to people," Brown told Reuters.
Meanwhile, Musk and his ideas were also facing fresh attention last week with the release of Walter Isaacson's new biography of him. The biography includes a revelation about Musk's role in preventing a Ukrainian drone attack in Crimea last year, raising new concerns about his geopolitical influence via his Starlink service.
Isaacson quotes Musk as saying, "The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation."
Isaacson does some psychological analysis as well, as a New York Times book review discusses. Isaacson traces Musk's desire to own Twitter back to having been bullied on the playground as a kid, and he suggests that Musk fundamentally misunderstood what Twitter was for people.
"He thought of it as a technology company," Isaacson writes, "when in fact it was an advertising medium based on human emotions and relationships," and buying it for Musk meant that "he could own the playground." As book reviewer Jennifer Szalai writes, "Owning a playground won’t stop you from getting bullied. If you think about it, owning a playground won’t get you much of anything at all."
Top photo: Chief Executive Officer of SpaceX and Tesla and owner of Twitter, Elon Musk attends the Viva Technology conference dedicated to innovation and startups at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre on June 16, 2023 in Paris, France. Elon Musk is visiting Paris for the VivaTech show where he gives a conference in front of 4,000 technology enthusiasts. He also took the opportunity to meet Bernard Arnaud, CEO of LVMH and the French President. Emmanuel Macron, who has already met Elon Musk twice in recent months, hopes to convince him to set up a Tesla battery factory in France, his pioneer company in electric cars. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)