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Opinion Elon Musk is harming free expression on Twitter, not protecting it

The Twitter logo and chief executive Elon Musk are displayed through a magnifier in this photo illustration on Oct. 27. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

“Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Elon Musk tweeted after he posted the results of an unscientific poll showing respondents favored allowing former president Donald Trump to return to Twitter. The Latin phrase, roughly translating to “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” might be a poetic expression of democratic sentiment. But it does not reflect what Mr. Musk is doing with one of the world’s most influential social media platforms.

So far, Mr. Musk has governed Twitter according to his whims. The chief executive’s polls supposedly express the will of the users — but many of those who engage regularly with his account are his die-hard supporters, aware of his preferences and eager to see them enacted. This was true in the case of Mr. Trump, who so far has chosen not to return to using Twitter despite his account’s reinstatement. And it was true in the case of Mr. Musk’s most recent query: “Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?”

Seventy-two percent said “yes” to this question, prompting Mr. Musk to announce that amnesty will begin this week. But determining whether an account has “broken the law” — when the law varies by location and legal judgments often require an expert eye — will be a logistical nightmare. Twitter just gutted its staff in broad-scale layoffs; if the company reintroduces, en masse, a group of users previously found to have violated its terms of service, what happens if they flout the rules again? Are there any rules now? Perhaps Mr. Musk doesn’t believe that people engaging in hate and harassment should be barred from his site. Fine. But if that is the case, he should have revised the site’s policies, allowed accounts suspended under the old regime to appeal under the new one, and applied the revised terms of service going forward.

The approach Mr. Musk has instead chosen undermines the values he claims to cherish. Slashing the number of staff devoted to policing content can end up harming civil liberties: The Post reports that Twitter is drowning in nuisance posts, mostly pornography, spewed onto the platform by accounts connected to the Chinese Communist Party, in an effort to obscure news of recent protests. Many of the analysts the company had to root out influence operations reportedly no longer work there.

Moreover, spotty rule enforcement — or even knowingly permitting rule violations — will make Twitter’s decision-making more arbitrary and, therefore, less conducive to free expression. The most credible criticism of Mr. Trump’s removal after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection was that it was capricious, seeming to spring not from a violation of any specific policy but rather from a seat-of-the-pants reaction to offline developments. As things stand now, it is unclear what one can and cannot say on Twitter — or what Mr. Musk’s next poll might result in.

Those who believe in free expression on Twitter should be fighting for clear and consistent policies along with transparent enforcement. Instead, Mr. Musk has brought chaos.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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