What’s So Bad About Elon Musk’s Vision for Twitter?
When you have a thought, opinion, or idea to share, all you have to do is open your mouth and speak it into existence. If there’s an audience for your ideas, you might even be fortunate enough to secure a platform that extends your reach farther out into the world than you could have ever imagined. You could write a book, send it off to a few respected publishing houses, and one day discover a copy of your work on display in your local library. Failing that, you could try organizing your ideas into an opinion piece and submit it to the New York Times, Washington Post, or any one of the many prestigious newspapers read by millions of Americans every single day.
But what if no one is interested in listening to what you have to say? What if your ideas fall so far outside the mainstream that no private entity is willing to give you a platform?
If that happens, there are myriad options available to you. You can go stand on a street corner and preach your ideas to passersby. You can plant yourself in the middle of a nearby park and pass out flyers to receptive pedestrians. You can march around town with a protest sign in one hand and megaphone in the other. Or you could just head over to your favorite coffee shop and bounce your ideas off a few close friends as you sip on a tasty latte and nibble on a biscotti.
The free exchange of ideas is widely understood as a critical element of a healthy democracy, which is why self-expression is among the most valuable of all political and cultural exercises in America. And thanks to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, it’s also a very simple exercise to perform in our material world.
In the material world, the First Amendment reigns supreme and ensures that every American citizen will always have a public space in which to speak. In the online world, however, the rules are a bit different. There are no public parks where you can go to preach to the masses about police brutality or climate change. There are no public sidewalks where you can protest against mask mandates or pandemic lockdowns. At any given moment, the censorious hand of Silicon Valley can swipe your megaphone from your grasp, and there’s not much you can do about that.
In other words, there are no corners of the world wide web that are impervious to corporate censorship. There is no online space that functions exactly like a public space, a space where people are always free to speak their minds.
On the internet, the rules regarding speech are written by a very exclusive network of wealthy, white-collar technophiles and executives, and that network wields an enormous amount of power and influence over American discourse. This past week, news broke that Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk might be joining that network after he offered to buy Twitter outright and make the company private, spawning a tidal wave of objections from liberals and progressives who are terrified of what Musk might have in store for the platform.
Musk hasn’t changed anything yet at Twitter, but the one thing he has already done is expose one of the most glaring systemic problems in the social media ecosystem; he’s shown just how vulnerable that system is to the whims of the wealthy. Free speech advocates have been sounding the alarm about this problem for years, but their concerns have mostly been met with a collective shrug by progressive voices who have eagerly pointed out that private companies like Twitter are free to impose or revoke any content-related restrictions they want.
Now that Musk might get the opportunity to author a whole new set of rules for what can and can’t be talked about on Twitter, some of those same progressives have begun to see the light. They’re starting to warm up to the idea that one wealthy man probably shouldn’t be able to buy his way into this position and obtain exclusive control over a platform that, as Musk himself put it, acts as a “de facto public town square.”
Twitter does indeed function like an online town square, but it isn’t governed like one. You can’t always say what you want to say, even if what you want to say is protected by the First Amendment.
Musk believes it’s time for that to change. “I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy,” he said in a letter to Twitter Chairman Bret Taylor.
Many on the right remain convinced of Twitter’s alleged left-wing bias, routinely citing the company’s decision to censor the 2020 New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop as a prime example of that bias. Consequently, Musk’s pledge to broaden the platform’s boundaries of acceptable speech has been met with thunderous applause in online conservative circles. But do those conservatives truly understand what it is they’re asking for? Do they understand how easily Musk’s endeavor could end in disaster?
If conservatives have it their way — if Musk manages to buy Twitter out and open it up to any and all speech that’s permitted under the First Amendment — it won’t take long before the company is crushed under the combined weight of all the trolls, bigots, and spammers who will undoubtedly swarm the platform the moment that Musk raises the gates for them. Is that the future conservatives envision for Twitter? Is that the price we all must pay for freedom of speech?
Of course, it will never get that far. It won’t get that far because, as much of a white-collar cowboy as he may be, Musk isn’t going to risk losing 43 billion dollars for the sake of making a political statement. He most certainly will maintain some measure of control over users’ speech, lest his investment in Twitter go up in flames. But just how much control over speech is he willing to relinquish, and will it be enough to transform Twitter into the haven for free speech that he wants it to be?
Maybe it will be, and maybe Twitter will be all the better for it. When it comes to content moderation, the company hasn’t always demonstrated the best judgment. Former CEO Jack Dorsey has himself admitted that censoring the aforementioned Hunter Biden story was a bad call. So perhaps the best approach moving forward is to make the process more democratic by not only giving users more freedom to speak their minds, but also by giving them more control over the content that comes across their feeds and letting them decide entirely for themselves which tweets are worthy of their attention and which ones deserve to be laid to rest in the digital abyss of Twitter’s archives.
The more important question, however, is whether the responsibility of safeguarding free speech online should be trusted to wealthy and powerful men like Elon Musk.
To anyone who believes in free speech not just as a legal and constitutional principle, but also as a cornerstone of the Western democratic ethos, the answer to that question is a resounding no. Twitter’s outsized influence on public discourse, which includes its impressive ability to manipulate the news media’s coverage of everything from national elections to global pandemics, is too great a power to trust in the hands of any individual person no matter their political beliefs or socioeconomic status.
In other words, the problem isn’t Elon Musk or Twitter. The problem is that the power to manipulate online discourse — and by extension, the national political discourse — has become too heavily concentrated in the hands of a few select social media platforms. That power needs to be distributed more evenly — or at least more democratically — than it is right now. The only question is, how can that be achieved, and who can we trust to do it?