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Could Elon Musk Convert Twitter into a Free Speech Platform?
On March, 25th 2022, business magnate and entrepreneur Elon Musk used his Twitter account to conduct an open survey, which eventually got over two million responses. The question ran as follows: “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” Seven out of ten respondents thought Twitter did not adhere to the principle of free speech.
In a follow-up survey, the billionaire and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX asked a question that gave a strong indication of his own assessment of Twitter’s adherence to free speech: “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?”
Elon Musk is right to be worried about Twitter
Elon Musk is right to worry about Twitter’s failure to adhere to free speech principles. Twitter has aggressively censored many of its users (including yours truly, for my commentary on pandemic policies) for expressing opinions Twitter happens to disagree with or take a disliking to, such as criticism of biological males who participate in women’s athletic competitions, certain opinions about the therapeutic value of repurposed drugs, and opinions skeptical about the protective value of novel vaccines for certain cohorts of the population.
Whether or not Twitter’s decision to censor its users’ political and scientific speech actually infringes any law, it is deeply damaging to social and moral progress in a free society, because it silences opinions and arguments before they even get a fair hearing. Besides the harms of these discrete acts of censorship, there is also the chilling effect for onlookers, who naturally restrict their speech to avoid the same fate befalling them.
Free speech means permitting the public expression of opinions that may be false or even offensive to some citizens, on the basis that we often cannot know in advance what is true or false or morally acceptable until both sides of a question have been given a fair hearing, particularly on complex issues with many dimensions to be pondered. There are no Philosopher Kings or Science Kings out there, not even in the World Health Organisation, who can act as infallible arbiters of truth and falsehood in this world.
The only way science and human knowledge can advance is by permitting each perspective to be presented and submitted to the scrutiny of critics. If a major speech platform like Twitter aggressively censors speakers based on its own subjective criterion of moral or scientific truth, then it may well put false or shaky beliefs, such as the notion that Covid could not possibly come from a laboratory in Wuhan, on artificial life-support, while arbitrarily killing off beliefs uncongenial to the censor’s worldview, such as the notion that a spate of unusual heart-related events among athletes may be connected to vaccines harms.
Freedom from Censorship is Necessary but not Sufficient
In this post, I am concerned with the deleterious effects of aggressive Big Tech censorship on the conversations that unfold in the public sphere. Censorship based on differences of opinion on contested scientific and political issues, no matter how well intentioned, silences voices that could very well enrich the conversation, and bring perspectives to the table that deserve careful consideration. So it is worth fighting to bring an end to the sort of politically tendentious censorship we have seen intensify and proliferate on Twitter during the pandemic.
But it is worth emphasising that censorship is only one important obstacle to a healthy, vibrant, and constructive public sphere. There are other important pathologies at work in social media like Twitter, that have little to do with censorship.1
For example, the “click bait” culture is incentivised by the way Twitter and Facebook are structured. The more shocking, confrontational, or emotive a tweet, the more it taps into people’s emotions and triggers a strong response. The “retweet” and “like” functions incentivise highly emotive and sensational messaging and seem to encourage the view that those tweets that receive most attention are the most important or have the greatest truth value.
The anonymity permitted by most social media platforms allows people to hurl insults without ever showing their face. Faceless bots are used to populate Facebook and Twitter with waves of propaganda. And we should not forget the so-called “echo chamber” effect that occurs when people who are perfectly ideologically aligned all follow the same person and congratulate each other on their terrific opinions.
Unfortunately, we will probably have to live with many of these limitations for a long time to come - these problems will not be fixed overnight. Nonetheless, it is worth fighting for incremental reforms that at least limit some of the damages of a poorly structured and regulated public sphere. One of these critical battles is the battle for free speech.
The Limits of Free Speech
To celebrate the value of free speech does not commit one to tolerating absolutely every piece of speech. A strong case can be made, for example, that speech inciting people to violence, terrorism, or armed insurrection against the State could be curtailed in order to protect public order and security. A strong case can also be made that speech inciting people to manifestly destructive behaviour, such as suicide or the ingestion of poisonous substances, could legitimately be suppressed to protect people’s life and health.
Fair enough. But this is a far cry from censoring someone because they adopt a controversial opinion on a socially or scientifically contested matter, such as the meaning of marriage, the participation of biologically male, transgender persons in female athletic competitions, the risk-benefit tradeoff of taking a particular vaccine, or the potential therapeutic value of a repurposed drug for treating a disease for which there is no well established treatment.
It is unclear how any human umpire, however wise or knowledgeable, could plausibly position themselves as holding sufficient moral and epistemic authority in a democratic society to decide who gets to speak, or which perspectives get to be heard in the public square, on socially contested questions of this sort.
Twitter is the equivalent of a public town square
Many would probably agree that a national government should not engage in wide-ranging censorship over political and scientific debate of the sort that Twitter, Youtube, and other social media platforms have engaged in. After all, the government is a public institution that acts on behalf of all citizens. Yet when it comes to Twitter, you will often hear people say, “They’re a private company, so they’re off the hook,” as if that gave them an automatic license to regulate speech whatever way they wish.
If Twitter were a moderately sized private company, in a truly diversified and competitive media market, and not a platform that dominates the digital global public sphere, together with other ideologically indistinguishable pro-censorship platforms like Youtube and Facebook, we might be able to fob off free speech complaints against them on the grounds that people can just take their speech to another platform.
But Elon Musk is very close to the truth when he observes that Twitter is, de facto, now the equivalent of the public town square. And just as we would not be too happy if Bill Gates bought up the public town square and started silencing his political adversaries, we should certainly not be at all happy with Twitter effectively buying up a large chunk of the digital public sphere and turning it into a propaganda machine for their favourite political causes.
The problem is, it is very difficult to stop a multi-national corporation like Twitter from regulating its large chunk of the digital public sphere as whimsically and despotically as it pleases. In the United States, for instance, one of the countries with the most robust legal protections for free speech in the world, the First Amendment protects citizens against infringements of their freedom of speech by the government, not by private actors, so Twitter appears to be shielded from legal challenges under the First Amendment.
What can possibly be done to save free speech from the claws of Twitter?
Let’s return to Mr Musk’s question, “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy… what should be done?”
Here are a few possibilities:
Some wealthy entrepreneur sets up a rival platform with a robust commitment to free speech, that can cut into Twitter’s privileged hold over the public sphere. Existing candidates include Gab, “Truth Social,” Parler and Gettr. Unfortunately, Twitter got there first, giving it a massive competitive advantage.
Governments pressure Twitter into allowing free speech, by imposing unfriendly regulations on companies of its size until they see sense and stop censoring valid political commentary. The problem is, many governments are themselves a part of the problem - see how the United States Surgeon General has been requesting that Big Tech provide the federal government with data on sources of “misinformation.”2 In addition, at attempt by a government to define exactly what sorts of regulations Twitter should impose on speech would probably be a legal landmine, given that it would constitute far-reaching interference by government in the internal policies of a private company.
Third, a very wealthy entrepreneur buys up the information infrastructure of Twitter and just runs it according to much more permissive and tolerant rules. If this wealthy entrepreneur was serious about defending free speech, they could make a publicly available constitution binding the management of Twitter - or whatever the new company would be called - to adhere to free speech principles.
Could Elon Musk either set up a platform to rival Twitter or take over Twitter completely and redesign its rules in line with free speech principles?
If he is sincere about the need to restore free speech - and obviously, that is a big if - then why not? Elon Musk is currently listed as the wealthiest person in the world according to both the Bloomberg Billionaires Index and the Forbes real-time billionaires list, with an estimated net value of over 250 billion US dollars: more than fifteen times the estimated net worth of Twitter.3
Setting up a viable rival platform that could compete with Twitter and attract a broad audience would be no mean feat. The public sphere is already littered with platforms like Gettr, Parler, Gab, and Truth Social, that have attempted just that, but they tend to quickly become echo-chambers of a broadly conservative or right-leaning audience, and none of them has thus far come anywhere close to rivalling the pervasive global reach of Twitter.
If Elon Musk managed to buy up Twitter and fundamentally change its underlying philosophy in favour of freedom of speech, that would be a very welcome improvement on the current situation, in which Twitter is owned and managed by people who clearly do not understand the value of free speech and have no interest in respecting it.
Replacing the head of the snake is at least a start
That said, replacing the head of the snake is not going to solve the broader pathologies of the modern public sphere, which have to do with (i) how centralised its ownership and management is; (ii) how susceptible it is to manipulation by well financed marketing gurus, and (iii) the highly relativist and emotivist culture that characterises modern Western societies at this time.
Free speech is a necessary condition for social and moral progress, but it is not sufficient. We need to find a way to restore the notion of public discourse as a sincere and accountable quest for truth. We also need to decentralise and diversify the infrastructure of our public sphere, to make it more amenable to meaningful, free, and respectful exchanges of ideas and arguments among equal citizens, rather than a mindless chorus of populist slogans and shallow, manipulative rhetoric.
If Elon Musk is serious about free speech, perhaps he can apply his entrepreneurial skills to the challenge of building a more horizontal and decentralised infrastructure for public speech. In the meantime, a free speech takeover of Twitter would at least be a step in the right direction.
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The Narrative of the Sovereign, Self-Governing People Is Harnessed by Elites to Legitimate Fundamentally Oligarchic States
I would like to thank one of my readers, Nicholas Gruen, for pointing this out to me. I introduced substantial additions to the article to acknowledge pathologies in the public sphere that cannot be resolved by the removal of censorship alone.
In this post, I explain why the concept of misinformation is so easy to manipulate in order to silence political and ideological dissenters.
Twitter’s total assets (or “net worth”) were estimated on Wikipedia as 13.37 billion US dollars in 2020, and estimated as $13.316 billion in 2021 by Gobanking, and $13.4 billion in 2022 by Forbes.