Jack Dorsey's Speech Revolution Is Just Getting Started

Dorsey has been more pro-free speech than many on the right in the United States believe.

Jack Dorsey has stepped down as the co-founder and CEO of Twitter, which he co-founded and led for more than a decade. Dorsey and other key social media CEOs have been accused by many on the American political right of restricting conservative content. Dorsey, on the other hand, does not easily fit into political boxes. Despite the fact that Twitter is sometimes grouped in with Facebook and YouTube, its founder's dedication to free expression and interest in decentralized efforts like BlueSky make Dorsey one of the most noteworthy online speech leaders in recent years. Keep an eye on Dorsey if you want to know what the future of social media holds.

Twitter has much in common with other prominent “Big Tech” social media firms such as Facebook and Google‐​owned YouTube. Like these firms, Twitter is centralized, with one set of rules and policies. Twitter is nonetheless different from other social media sites in important ways. Although often discussed in the context of “Big Tech” debates, Twitter is much smaller than Facebook and YouTube. Only about a fifth of Americans use Twitter and most are not active on the platform, with 10 percent of users being responsible for 80 percent of tweets. Despite its relatively small size, Twitter is often discussed by lawmakers because of its outsized influence among cultural and political elites.

Concerns over Twitter's content filtering practices prompted Republican senators to focus on the platform. Members of Congress have increasingly criticized "Big Tech" corporations' content filtering policies in recent years. Together such discussions, Twitter is frequently lumped in with Facebook and YouTube, which is unfortunate considering Dorsey's stance on free expression.

Dorsey has been more pro-free speech than many on the right in the United States believe.

Dorsey has been more pro-free speech than many on the right in the United States believe. Is it true that Twitter followed a policy of permitting all lawful expression during Dorsey's leadership? Obviously not. Is it true that Twitter's policies are sometimes applied inconsistently? Yes.

However, no social media platform could possibly enable all lawful expression. Spam and other invasive legal speech would impair the internet experience, leaving aside the huge variety of unpleasant but legal communication. When adopting a content moderation strategy on a social networking platform with millions or billions of members, there will be false positives and false negatives.

Yet Dorsey defended keeping former President Trump’s Twitter account live, and expressed concern about suspending Trump’s Twitter account in the wake of the January 6th coup attempt.

In recent years, it has become evident that Dorsey is open to fresh ideas that may become common in the future. Users are accustomed to centralized platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube since we are still in the early stages of the Internet and social media. However, decentralized solutions are becoming more prevalent, and a few years ago Dorsey announced the decentralized social media project BlueSky, with the goal of moving Twitter over to such a system eventually.

Dorsey has not been shy about his passion for decentralization, citing the cryptocurrency bitcoin as a particular influence, “largely because of the model it demonstrates: a foundational internet technology that is not controlled or influenced by any single individual or entity. This is what the internet wants to be, and over time, more of it will be.”

I predict that in the coming years decentralized social media will gradually become more popular than current centralized platforms. As I wrote earlier this year:

 

“Americans across the political spectrum may look to decentralized social media and cryptocurrencies if their political allies continue to criticize household name firms. Those involved in protest movements as varied as Black Lives Matter and #StopTheSteal are especially likely to embrace such alternatives given their experiences with surveillance.

But Americans fed up with what they perceive to be politically‐​motivated content moderation and Big Tech’s irresponsible approach to harassment and misinformation may also join an exit from popular platforms and use decentralized alternatives. If they do, members of Congress upset over the spread of specific political content, COVID 19 misinformation, and election conspiracy theories will have to reach beyond Big Tech and grapple with decentralized systems where there is no CEO to subpoena or financial institution to investigate.”

Such platforms can embrace a Twitter‐​like aesthetic. Mastodon, a decentralized and open source social media service, looks very similar to Twitter, allowing users to send “toots.” Gab, a right wing social media network, which also mimics Twitter, became a Mastodon fork in 2019 after adopting Mastodon software. We shouldn't be shocked if more individuals across the political spectrum utilize decentralized social media as regulatory battles over "Big Tech" and online expression continue.

Dorsey is certainly optimistic about a future in which decentralized social media platforms would supplant centralized online speech platforms. If he is correct in his forecast, Dorsey's legacy will most likely be tied to his work in decentralization rather than his time at Twitter.

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