Incoming Twitter CEO Said Company Should ‘Focus Less’ on Free Speech

(Thomas White/Reuters)

Twitter’s incoming CEO Parag Agrawal suggested last year that the company should “focus less” on free speech during an interview with Technology Review.

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey announced Monday that he is stepping down as CEO and will be succeeded by Agrawal, who is the platform’s current chief technology officer.

Last year, Technology Review editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield asked Agrawal how Twitter balances its efforts to combat misinformation with wanting to “protect free speech as a core value” and to respect the First Amendment. 

Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation,” said Agrawal, who has been CTO since 2017 and has worked at Twitter since 2011. “The kinds of things that we do about this is, 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,” he continued. “Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard. The scarce commodity today is attention. There’s a lot of content out there. A lot of tweets out there, not all of it gets attention, some subset of it gets attention.”

Twitter’s role is “moving towards how we recommend content and that sort of, is, is, a struggle that we’re working through in terms of how we make sure these recommendation systems that we’re building, how we direct people’s attention is leading to a healthy public conversation that is most participatory,” he said.

The November 18, 2020 interview came before Twitter banned then-President Donald Trump from the platform in January, citing “the risk of further incitement of violence” in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot.

The company cited two of the president’s tweets from Friday as the reason for the permanent suspension: one in which Trump announced he would not be attending President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20 and a second where he praised his supporters as “great American Patriots” who will not be “disrespected or treated unfairly,” just days after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

At the time, Dorsey defended the decision, saying the Capitol riot and Trump’s tweets that followed were a risk to public safety that created an “extraordinary and untenable circumstance” for the company.

However, the move came shortly after hundreds of Twitter employees demanded in a letter that the platform permanently suspend the president’s account because of his posts about the storming of the U.S. Capitol.

“Despite our efforts to serve the public conversation, as Trump’s megaphone, we helped fuel the deadly events of January 6th,” roughly 350 Twitter employees wrote in a letter to the company’s top executives, according to the Washington Post. 

“We request an investigation into how our public policy decisions led to the amplification of serious anti-democratic threats. We must learn from our mistakes in order to avoid causing future harm,” they added at the time.

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