Elon’s Purchase of Twitter and the Implications of Free Speech
Elon Musk has once again whipped the internet into a frenzy over his intention to acquire Twitter. The recent announcement has agitated Twitter staff, polarized the user base, and has evolved into the embodiment of the broader culture war on what people are allowed to say and do in public spaces.
Reactions across the internet have, of course, been dramatic. Conservative Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has called the potential purchase “the biggest development for free speech in decades,” while liberal representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has predicted the takeover will lead to an “explosion of hate crimes” because “some billionaire with an ego” wants total control over Twitter.
One aspect of Twitter that sets it apart from other social media platform competitors is that ordinary users can directly speak to (and challenge) politicians, celebrities, and other notable people. An unfortunate side effect of this freedom is the issue of hate speech primarily directed towards women and people of color, which the platform has grappled with for more than a decade. Now, with Elon’s purchase of Twitter looming on the horizon, the future of their moderating tools painstakingly built and improved upon since its inception in 2006 has been left uncertain.
Grappling with Freedom of Speech
If the past 10 years of Twitter history has taught us anything, it’s that ‘free speech’ means drastically different things to different people. With Elon’s $44 billion purchase he is poised to wade directly into the eye of the storm, leaving many to wonder what the platform will look like in the long-term and who could potentially suffer the most. If the problems Mark Zuckerberg has faced over the years has taught us anything, it’s that giving people a voice and avenue to express their freedom of speech is easy to say but quite difficult to live up to.
Soon it will be Elon’s turn to grapple with the gap between the idealized version of free speech and the countless tough decisions needed to enforce it. While Elon has yet to make any of his specific plans public yet, he has consistently been an outspoken voice pushing back against Twitter’s deletion of posts and banning of users. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” claimed Musk in a statement announcing his intention to purchase the platform.
A Double-Edged Sword
How Elon intends to tackle the important trade-offs of unfettered free speech is still unclear. Giving some people unrestricted freedom of speech on such a public and widely-used platform could potentially lead to silencing the expression of others. If Twitter becomes an ‘anything goes’ platform, is it not possible it could be overrun by spam, pornography, autocratic propaganda, the bullying of children or other vulnerable people, or even incitements to violence? Would average users still want to spend their time on a site that openly allows harassment from people they disagree with? Would they still be interested in engaging with others despite being inundated by endless sales pitches for cryptocurrencies or counterfeit goods?
“We need to protect freedom of speech in order to make our democracy work,” says Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “But there is a lot of distance to cover from that premise to the kinds of decisions that social media companies have to make every day.” Elon’s purchase of Twitter raises questions that are difficult to answer: When is more speech better? When is it worse? And who gets to make these decisions?
Politicians trash talking each other online is relatively harmless in countries where it’s easier to hold them accountable through news media, strong civic groups, and robust court systems. But what about countries such as Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, or Somalia? Government officials have utilized social media as an effective tool to harass critics, spread propaganda or outright lies, or even to incite ethnic violence.
The very public debacle involving former president Donald Trump and his social media usage gave the public some much needed insight as to how these kinds of issues may unfold in the future. The nation was already divided and rampant political propaganda only seemed to deepen that divide and further polarize the American electorate. The onset of the COVID pandemic followed by Trump’s misleading claims regarding the results of the 2020 presidential election saw a change in how social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube viewed the role they played in fanning the flames of anger and division among Americans.
Twitter and Facebook began taking steps to label or outright remove false or misleading information and tinkered with their behind the scenes systems in an effort to curb the viral spread of disinformation. Shortly thereafter, Trump was kicked off of major social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. It was a turning point for the “tweets must flow” crowd who finally began to acknowledge that they could and should do more to stop individuals from using their platforms as a mouthpiece to spread far-reaching and potentially harmful information.
Potential for Government Overreach
Some of the speech-control policy changes enacted by social media giants in response to these incidents may have been an overreach. It has led to governments around the world forcing these sites to shift from largely self-regulation to following strict government-created guidelines. Newly enacted laws, such as the Digital Services Act in the European Union requires Twitter and other social media platforms to step up their moderation efforts in order to scrub the site of misleading information and abuse. In other countries such as Vietnam, social media platforms now face litigation when users post what the government deems to be unflattering criticisms of it. Social media companies are now in the awkward position of potentially harming freedom of speech and expression if they meddle too much.
At the end of the day, there is no denying that Elon will soon be joining the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Shouzi Chew, and Tim Cook as one of a handful of businessmen who have extreme control over people’s access to the most influential platforms for global discourse. It’s an interesting side effect of the Silicon Valley revolution that finally broke the iron grips of media tycoons who gatekeep the control and flow of information, while simultaneously creating new ones. Despite how anyone might feel about the situation, social media barons are the 21st century versions of the oil tycoons of old.
At Lithios we value outside opinions. This blog was written by one of our guest bloggers, Jonathan Baker, with feedback from the Lithios team.