Could Elon Musk's $2.89 Billion Investment in Twitter Be a Victory for Free Speech?
In a recent blog post (March 30th 2022), I speculated, prompted by a tweet of business magnate Elon Musk questioning Twitter’s commitment to free speech, whether Elon Musk might use a part of his vast fortune to buy up the information infrastructure of Twitter and institute rules more favourable to free speech than those currently in place:
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.
Less than a week later, Mr Musk has already bought up close to $2.89 billion of shares in Twitter. The purchase, made public on Monday in a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, leaves Mr Musk with a 9.2% stake in the company, making him Twitter’s largest stakeholder.
The general drift of Elon Musk’s public rhetoric, as manifested in a number of recent tweets about Twitter’s flakey adherence to free speech principles, is that Twitter is functionally equivalent to a “public town square,” and as such, must adhere to free speech principles on pain of undermining democracy. Thus, he has positioned himself publicly on the side of free speech and against Twitter’s current censorship policies.
Elon Musk is a businessman and entrepreneur, not a disinterested philanthropist. So it is very likely that he sees a business opportunity at this time in championing free speech. But that does not necessarily mean that his stated commitment to free speech is insincere, nor does it detract from its significance, should he follow through on it.
Many of us, including those of us who have been removed from Twitter for daring to question what currently passes for political or scientific orthodoxy, are wondering, will Elon Musk reverse Twitter’s censorship policies or turn Twitter into a free speech forum? Does his recent investment in Twitter mean that those unjustly removed from Twitter or shadow-banned by them will be fully reinstated?
For now, we simply do not know. For one thing, a soundbitey public pronouncement in favour of free speech is very different to an operational company policy on free speech. The “devil is in the detail,” and if Musk eventually gets to redesign Twitter’s censorship policies, only time will tell whether the revised policies will be a big improvement on the status quo.
For another thing, even if Elon Musk is now the single largest shareholder in Twitter, presumably that does not give him a carte blanche to make whatever changes he wishes to the company’s policies. It is a bold move on his part to buy up almost 10% of the company, but we will have to wait and see whether he manages to gain enough leverage over the company to reshape its corporate culture and practices.
Finally, as I commented at some length in my last post on this topic, even if Mr Musk manages to gain enough leverage over Twitter to institute a more libertarian free speech regime, that is not a panacea for the dysfunctions of the global digital public sphere. While it would undoubtedly represent a significant victory for free speech, the withdrawal of aggressive political and scientific censorship by no means guarantees the health and vibrancy of the public sphere.
There are plenty of other pathologies in the digital public sphere, including the excessively centralised ownership of social media, the “click bait” culture, the “echo chamber” effect, the vulnerability of social media users to mind-numbing propaganda, and the ease with which anonymous trolls can abandon the rules of civility and good taste, that will not go away just because censorship is lifted.
Nobody knows for sure if Elon Musk will follow through on his publicly stated commitment to free speech, and if he does, whether he will eventually succeed in bringing an end to Twitter’s draconian censorship policies. Even if he does, this would not fix the myriad dysfunctions of our global public sphere.
Nevertheless, it would be a very welcome improvement on the current situation, in which Twitter is owned and managed by people who appear to be tone-deaf to the value of freedom of speech, aggressively suppressing information and viewpoints that are disagreeable to their political and scientific worldview, and treating the platform as a channel of political and ideological advocacy rather than an open forum in which citizens can express their opinions freely.
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