Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has left users of the social media platform in a moral quandary. His sudden decision to grant an amnesty for suspended accounts has caused alarm. All the more so as he justified the move on the basis of an online poll.
Musk makes no secret of where he stands on the political spectrum: a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist”, he is not so keen, however, to grant his employees the freedom to join trade unions.
All this is too much for some. Each week sees new departures to the supposedly more civilised platform Mastodon, and the threat of more Twitter boycotts from “woke celebs” (the Daily Mail’s words, not mine). The question is: Have you a moral obligation to join them?
Unthinkable sought advice from Kenneth Silver, an expert in business ethics, to navigate what are ideologically-charged waters. The Trinity College Dublin lecturer has just been awarded a €1.37 million European Research Council grant to investigate corporate moral progress, drawing on the resources of both philosophy and management sciences.
We collectively aren’t in a position to satisfyingly regulate Twitter— Kenneth Silver, TCD
A starting point for a company like Twitter is what standards should you apply? “There is a question of whether it should be held to the same standards as a public institution,” says Silver. He stresses this was a live consideration long before Musk took it over with a pledge to enhance the “digital town square”.
Twitter “provides such a distinctive service where there is no clear alternative”. This, Sliver believes, puts an added onus on the company to behave ethically. “It’s unfair to Twitter in some sense because why should a company have higher standards of obligations just because it’s richer? But we accept that with actors generally. If I’m a richer person in society, there is a general acceptance that I play a bigger role and might have to give back more.”
The need for Twitter to set moral standards and to try to uphold them is partly because “there are no actors better positioned to play this role”, Silver continues. “We collectively aren’t in a position to satisfyingly regulate Twitter. Because it’s a global organisation, no group of people is in a position to try to reign it in. So it has to play this role, and we have to internationally demand it plays this role”.
Okay, so we are entitled expect Twitter to act ethically. But Musk’s argument is that meeting its legal obligations is sufficient and desirable and going beyond that is where his predecessors went wrong.
“I think this is a big mistake and it’s a really common mistake business leaders make,” Silver responds. “They think: look if you don’t like it you can regulate it and, once we’ve satisfied all the regulations, people can do whatever they like, and Twitter shouldn’t be beholden to anything except the barest understanding of legal obligation.
“I think that’s a dramatic misunderstanding of the place of law and the place of business ethics because the fact is, the law is a blunt instrument and it’s an extremely expensive instrument. It’s really hard to develop a regulatory apparatus that isn’t captured by the industry itself. It’s really hard for that apparatus to then implement any rules. So it’s necessary for businesses to step up and play the other half of that – even more so than for normal citizens.
“Perhaps citizens can easily evade taxes ... Nevertheless, we accept a personal obligation that we’re supposed to [pay them], and far beyond that. Like, I’m not supposed to be a jerk and we’re not going to write a law to that effect.
“So there are all sorts of moral norms inappropriate for the law to involve itself in. Similarly, we want Twitter to play a social function in how it facilitates meaningful interaction and debates publicly, and it should be regulated in some ways. But that’s not to say that, if we think it should do something, we should either regulate or not bother.”
So where does this leave individual users? If Twitter is not being ethically responsible should you quit the platform?
“In some ways the question of our consumer involvement with Twitter is much easier than other questions of ethical consumption,” Silver replies.
The international boycott of US corporation Chick-fil-A over the views of its evangelical Christian owners raised the prospect of “a bunch of franchise owners that have no connection to the central office all of a sudden [having] their businesses ruined. This kind of case doesn’t come up with Twitter because the person in charge came in and fired half the company.” The “collateral damage” that would be caused by a boycott of Twitter “doesn’t seem to exist”.
There are, of course, other ways of registering protest than a boycott, including speaking out on the platform itself about the direction it is taking. You also have a choice about how to behave on Twitter.
“Some of it comes down to how much of a public service you think Twitter is,” Silver says. “You might think you shouldn’t be a troll but being a troll is quite normal on the platform; the platform is built to incentivise behaviour that is trolling.
“The question is: do I have a duty to resist these incentives, or does the firm have a duty to build a platform in such a way that the incentives are against trolling? I would have thought the latter. I tend to hold corporations responsible and let people off the hook.”
One thing Silver is emphatic about is that Twitter users should resist Musk’s deployment of majoritarianism. “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”, or “the voice of the people, the voice of God” has become his new catchphrase.
Regarding the amnesty opinion poll, “my initial reaction was voting itself signals a complicity with the way this vote is taking place. I would have abstained from the vote if I had heard about it in time because I resent the decision being made in that way. It seems like a terrible way to make a decision,” says Silver.
Does he regard it as a quitting matter? “I am still on it myself. Some of that has to do with, where else can I go? ... I still feel I have a duty to know what’s going on there.” He adds with a shrug: “I’d be such a passive engager anyway. I’m [part of] the 95 per cent that just reads funny tweets.”
Again, some perspective is useful. The British actor Stephen Fry announced he was quitting Twitter last month but it is not the first time he has left the platform. In 2016, he wrote a signing off letter declaring that “too many people have peed in the pool for you to want to swim there any more”. Arguably all that is different now is a higher concentration of wee in the water; that and the lifeguard himself is periodically wading in to relieve himself.
Fry’s letter – which was followed up by a one-word tweet last month “goodbye” – helps to explain why many people feel dirty staying on Twitter. However, the key ethical question is not so much whether Twitter is a pleasant place to be but whether it is undermining democracy by promoting lies and fomenting social discord.
That question will remain whoever owns it.
Ask a sage:
Mastodon or Twitter?
Arthur Schopenhauer replies: “There is in the world only the choice between loneliness and vulgarity.”