As the owner of Twitter, Elon Musk has taken on (bought) one of the world’s most important editorial posts. He gets to decide who can and who cannot publish on his global site.
But look more closely to see that he is only in a very limited way an editor. He can exclude someone from using Twitter, or re-include someone previously excluded, but does not edit what gets published. Twitter, and similar sites, will in some cases remove offensive material after it has been posted but, short of banning a user, not (usually) block offensive material from getting published in the first place. He has power to include or exclude users, but not responsibility for what gets published. If I post a derogatory slur about a named person, the manager who has allowed me to use his site for the purpose cannot be held responsible.
This is all different in print media, newspapers and magazines. Such outlets must have a designated “editor,” whose responsibility it is to edit prospective material and who carries responsibility for what gets published. If a newspaper allows me to print a lie about someone, its editor can be held responsible. It is not enough that he removes the lie after it has been spread. A problem with social media sites such as Twitter is that responsibility stops nowhere or with anyone.
Social media bosses have claimed that they are just site managers, not publishers, and that it because of technology and global reach is not possible for them to be held editorially responsible. But that is a losing battle. In many countries, and very much in the European Union, regulatory frameworks are gradually coming into place. It is no longer accepted that managers hide behind technology to refuse responsibility.
However, such regulations that are coming into place generally fall short of imposing normal editorial responsibility on social media publishers. The amount of harmful, dangerous and offensive use of social media is staggering, and no one is in a position of last-resort responsibility. Mr. Musk wants Twitter to be an arena of his idea of free speech but cannot be held responsible when users abuse that liberty.
It would be a big step forwards if ongoing regulatory work designated social media sites to be publications and imposed normal editorial responsibility on those who run them. We expect of print media that they prevent harmful and offensive material from getting published and spread. We take it to be obvious that editors should be held responsible. We should do no less in electronic media. What is not allowed in print outlets, should not be allowed in IT outlets. An outlet being electronic, is no excuse for no one being responsible. Those who run social media sites are the technological geniuses. It is for them to work out how to manage their trade in conformity with normal standards of safety and decency. If they can’t do that, nor should they be able to operate.
Elon Musk wants the power to decide. That should come with also a duty of responsibility.
For more detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.