On Monday, after Parag Agrawal was announced as the new head of Twitter, the social media company’s CEO concluded a mission-statement-like letter to employees with a challenge:

“The world is watching us right now, even more than they have before,” said Agrawal, a 37-year-old Stanford University graduate and native of India who worked his way up from software engineer to CEO. “Lots of people are going to have lots of different views and opinions about today’s news. It is because they care about Twitter and our future, and it’s a signal that the work we do here matters. Let’s show the world Twitter’s full potential.”

He’s right. We are watching. Globally, free-speech proponents who are wrestling with the utility of post-modern public-square platforms like Twitter rightfully recognize how Dorsey’s passing of power to Agrawal is a seminal juncture in the story of how social media affects society.

Twitter already has a checkered history of applying a thumb to the scale of free speech to favor messages of particular philosophical and political persuasions. The most obvious example is the platform’s outright, indefinite ban of President Donald Trump earlier this year.

As Agrawal’s own statements suggest, Twitter likely will only further ratchet it up from here. The new CEO intimated as much in an interview with MIT Technology Review a year ago. The special episode of “In Machines We Trust” — a haunting title, in its own right — was a conversation between Agrawal and MIT Tech Review’s editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield. The discussion was specific to how Twitter “is trying to thread a needle of mitigating harm caused by false content without becoming an arbiter of truth.”

During the conversation, Lichfield tells Agrawal several submitted audience questions all ask the same thing: “Who gets to decide what is ‘misinformation?’” Agrawal dubbed the inquiry “the existential question of our times.”

Then, as Agrawal made the following statement, George Orwell turned over in his grave.

“...We focused way less on what's true and what's false. We focus way more on potential for harm as a result of certain content being amplified on the platform without appropriate context.”

Lichfield then, at the prodding of the audience, stated the obvious: Twitter is “caught in a bit of a hard place” because they are “trying to combat misinformation” while also “wanting to protect free speech as a core value.”

“Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment,” Agrawal corrected Lichfield, “...(we) focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed. One of the changes today that we see is speech is easy on the Internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard. The scarce commodity today is attention.”

Reasonable people can agree attention is the commodity of our time — one viewing of Netflix’s chilling Social Dilemma documentary will convince you as much — while also realizing we, as Americans in our own country, shouldn’t have to acquiesce and give Twitter the Big Brother-like power of deciding who can be heard.

That’s especially the case after the company last year served up its magnum-opus example of censorship: banning the sharing — even in private direct messages — of the New York Post’s accurate report on the Hunter Biden laptop scandal. It’s a decision many pro-free-speech people across the political spectrum argue heavily affected the 2020 presidential election.

In Agrawal’s first week as CEO, Twitter has taken a further step in embracing its role as an intercontinental technocratic overlord of speech. On Tuesday, the Orwellian “@TwitterSafety” account announced Agrawal banned “the sharing of private media, such as images or videos of private individuals without their consent.” Twitter said the new policy is intended to “help curb the misuse of media to harass, intimidate, and reveal the identities of private individuals, which disproportionately impacts women, activists, dissidents and members of minority communities.”

The despotic language of the policy announcement further raised the suspicion of pro-free-speech types, especially after it was publicized earlier in the week that Agrawal once tweeted out, “If they are not gonna make a distinction between Muslims and extremists, then why should I distinguish between white people and racists?” — apparently a quote from “The Daily Show.”

Whether conservative or liberal, journalists of all stripes should be concerned by Agrawal’s maiden policy pivot. Skeptics believe it will be weaponized by Twitter to further silence and censor any relevant journalistic information Twitter prefers the masses remain aloof about.

Alas, we agree, Parag. We care about the future of Twitter. We do believe the work you do matters. We’re just worried your self-described charge to “show the world Twitter’s full potential” will come at the cost of the potential of so many of us.

Gazette editorial board

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