Twitter’s Community Notes Are Just Censorship by a Different Name

June 2nd, 2023 11:38 AM

Elon Musk’s Twitter stumbled into a censorship controversy this week as the platform initially limited the visibility and ability to share The Daily Wire’s movie “What is a Woman” just as The Daily Wire host Matt Walsh’s documentary made its debut on the Blue Bird.

Confusion and frustration abounded as the throttling of speech occurred live on screens on Thursday, but by Friday morning at least some of the restrictions were lifted after Twitter’s Head of Trust and Safety abruptly resigned

The incident puts into sharp focus the most difficult aspect of Musk’s project to transform Twitter. On the one hand, the platform is newly committed to free speech. On the other hand, without content moderation, it risks losing advertising revenue, and potentially the participation on the site by legacy media and others.

Musk’s most significant change to content moderation policies at Twitter has been “Community Notes,” a crowdsourced alternative to professional fact-checking, and while some conservatives appear to like the results better, the warning labels are still a form of censorship, albeit by a different name.

To the extent we can understand the Byzantine practices at Twitter, it goes something like this: Users see a tweet they disagree with, they create a note either fact-checking, or worse adding context to the tweet. These notes are voted on by other users, and eventually, Twitter somehow decides what warnings appear below the offending tweets.

While this is more democratic than traditional fact checks, it still falls into many of the same epistemological traps that all efforts to censor do eventually. Let’s start with a fundamental problem: crowdsourcing is no guarantee of truth.

For thousands of years, humans have debated how we can know truth. Among the answers from philosophers from Plato to Kant, nowhere will you find the idea that truth can be established by voting on it.

This is especially true when the people doing the voting on truth are a self-selected sliver of the population who are very, very online. One need look no farther than Wikipedia, a hotbed of progressive bias, to see that crowdsourcing is not the answer.

But the problems run much deeper. The most insidious tool in the fact-checker’s quiver is the phrase “Missing Important Context,” which is employed when a statement is true but the people in authority deem it misleading because it doesn’t include counter arguments that they prefer.

Let’s be completely clear, deciding what “missing context” is “important” is a wholly subjective enterprise, and when tweets are subjectively given warning labels, that is absolutely a form of censorship. 

Further, the Community Notes do not appear to operate independent of leadership at Twitter, with however many thousands (again we just don’t know the details) of suggested notes, it is eventually Twitter itself — whether through human decision-making or an algorithm — that decides what gets the censorship treatment.

The obvious question here is why these warning labels are needed at all, given that the platform already has a very simple way for the community of users to challenge the subject matter of a tweet: more tweets.

Honestly, there is no more popular sport on Twitter than users finding ridiculous statements by high profile accounts and spending hours publicly dragging the offender on the platform. Is there some reason this is not sufficient?

In fact, this combat bad speech with more speech approach is what most conservatives called for prior to Musk taking over. Good will towards the eccentric billionaire has seemed to make many on the right give Musk’s Community Notes the benefit of the doubt. This is a mistake.

Ultimately, the problem here is that “content moderation,” of which Community Notes is a type, is inherently an Orwellian business that winds up meaning censorship. Placing official warning labels on true statements is censorship whether you use a euphemism for it or not.

It is fair to point out that Twitter is in a very difficult, if not impossible situation here, though. While limiting content moderation pleases conservatives but offends progressives, it also could place ad revenue in danger. Although, Musk has said that he is willing to lose money over free speech.

But it's about much more than money. Musk’s stated goal is to create an unbiased public square. To achieve that he needs buy-in from the left, from left-wing journalists, outlets and content creators to populate the site.

National Public Radio has already abandoned Twitter, and you can all but bet your house on the fact that places like The New York Times, MSNBC, and The Washington Post conservations are occurring about following NPR’s lead.

For now, some conservatives are celebrating Community Notes, others cutting Musk some slack on it, but at the end of the day, censorship is censorship, whether you like the results or not.

Twitter should take its thumb off the scale of discourse by abandoning Community Notes and trust the users to police themselves organically without making some more equal than others with special privileges. That, and only that, will truly be free speech.

Conservatives are under attack. Contact Twitter at (415) 222-9670 and demand that Big Tech be held to account to mirror the First Amendment while providing transparency, clarity on so-called hate speech and equal footing for conservatives. If you have been censored, contact us at the Media Research Center contact form, and help us hold Big Tech accountable.