Tesla CEO and philanthropist Elon Musk has grand plans to turn Twitter into an “inclusive arena for free speech,” a worthy goal if he’s able to accomplish it. No stranger to private giving, Musk donated roughly $5.7 billion of Tesla shares to charity in 2021, earning him the No. 2 spot in The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s 2021 ranking of top givers.
As a donor concerned about his own privacy and freedom of speech allowed by private giving, it is consistent that he cares about free speech in other arenas. By purchasing the social media giant, which boasts 229 million active daily users, his goal is both to improve the platform and set it free from the bonds of partisan censorship. Anyone who appreciates that free speech underpins our free society should welcome the prospect that the platform could host the free exchange of ideas. Instead, many people, particularly on the left, have had a meltdown.
Musk predicts that once the changes he proposes are completed, those on both ends of the ideological spectrum will not be happy, but the majority of users will find Twitter to be a town hall or public square where they can participate more fully than they currently do. This prospect frightens the anti-free- speech crowd.
After securing his Twitter deal, Musk released a statement expressing the reasoning behind his move: “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.” He plans to make Twitter “better than ever” by introducing new features such as authenticating all humans, making the algorithms open-source, and defeating spambots.
This announcement unleashed a torrent of outcry (emphasis on the crying) largely from pundits, journalists and activists. They painted Musk’s move in the starkest of terms. One user tweeted: “Today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany.” Journalist David Leavitt proclaimed: “[This] could result in World War 3 and the destruction of our planet.”
Vox laid out arguments for why Twitter should not truly be a platform for free speech. In the view of many verified users or “blue checks” – ironically, a status bequeathed a select few that grants them influence and reach – one powerful person creating a space for all voices somehow hurts democracy and marginalizes the marginalized. David Kaye, a University of California, Irvine, law professor, summed up the argument in the article: “[Twitter] is a global platform. So for somebody with a lot of money to just come in and say, ‘Look, I’m going to buy a part of this company, and therefore my voice as to how your rules are adopted and enforced is going to have more power than anybody else’s’ — I think that’s regressive after years of [Twitter] trying to make sensible rules.”
Free-speech critics have welcomed (and perhaps pushed) the adoption of censorship measures. They view greater free speech on the platform as somehow dangerous. We’re not talking about illegal content such as threats of violence or child pornography. They want limits on political debates and alternative viewpoints on social, cultural, economic and even scientific issues. Washington Post columnist Max Boot, who tweeted that he was “frightened by the impact on society and politics” by Musk’s Twitter acquisition, pegged the survival of democracy to “more content moderation, not less.”
This view is patently elitist. It rests on the premise that all people are not equal, nor should their voices hold equal power. They ignore how they can wield their influence in partisan ways and for destructive ends.
Social-media mobs patrol Twitter feeds looking to enact their own form of street justice. They gang up to cancel individuals for past comments, unpopular views, support of undesirable candidates, or failure to support favored causes. This leads to job losses, resignations and other penalties. They use Twitter’s algorithms to amplify their messages and pretend they speak for millions of people. In turn, the media has viewed Twitter as representative of America – even though it isn’t according to Pew demographic data – and relied on the echo chambers there to make judgments about where the electorate is on a given issue. These blue checks are worried about losing their ability to serve as cultural firing squads.
Disturbingly, they are using fearmongering about how marginalized people could be treated as a cover for the loss of their own influence. Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit, worried that a Musk-run Twitter would “disproportionately” harm women and minorities while “unrestricted amplification” benefits “the same people who have benefited from that privilege for centuries.” Mean tweets are not a valid reason to limit speech. Threatening language can and should be banned, but let’s stop equating dissenting views as somehow violent.
Twitter is not government owned, but like other social media platforms, the company claims to be a public square. Holding the company to that standard, let’s imagine what Twitter could become under Musk: Each user – newly verified – would be able to express his or her opinion even if he or she was the only person to hold that view. Dialogues and debates would ensue.
As of now, the Twitter public square is surrounded by gatekeepers who bully people into conformity and silence and push the company to erect content-moderation restrictions that serve their advantage. If Musk can tear down the barriers and move aside the gatekeepers, perhaps the platform would attract more users and they would find neutral ground. How powerful would it be if other social media companies followed?
This is far from the only effort to expand free speech. As we’ve written about previously, philanthropists are founding or supporting organizations that promote civil debate and bridge the partisan divides. Private enterprise, philanthropy and civil society can be powerful forces against the tidal wave of censorship in spheres such as media and social media.
“For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral,” Musk said. Let’s hope this free speech absolutist is successful in his campaign.