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Free Speech vs. Twitter: Dangerous precedent of the world’s richest man buying the public town square

Further, control over social media platforms allows for the control of inter and intra-national narratives, giving the holder the ability to subtly sway the moral compass of humanity over time.

By Samuel Pablo Pareira and Keshav Khanna

Disclaimer: On Friday (13/5), Elon Musk put his Twitter acquisition deal temporarily on hold, pending review of spam and fake accounts. Nevertheless, it does not change the core arguments of this article.

After weeks of negotiation, public pressure, and tit-for-tat, Elon Musk finally closed a deal on April 25 to buy Twitter for US$ 44 billion. With this transaction, the control over one of the most influential social media platforms will shift to the hand of the world’s richest man

Capturing his official statement in his tweet, Mr. Musk justified his acquisition as coming from his personal belief that “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 also aims to make Twitter better than ever by “restoring free speech”, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, eradicating spam bots, and authenticating all humans.

Musk’s content-moderation model

To many, Mr. Musk’s goal of free-speech absolutism might seem altruistic, even noble. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy a very basic tenet of democracy, the freedom to express? In an attempt to execute said goal, Mr. Musk plans to roll back Twitter’s moderation policies, including removing permanent banning and content warning systems. He even plans to reverse Twitter’s ban of Donald Trump, citing it as a “morally bad decision” and “foolish in the extreme”. 

Overall, he wants the platform to become more libertarian. 

The first problem with this approach is that it has already been tried and tested by the company. Early Twitter executives used to describe their platform as the ‘free-speech wing of the free-speech party.’ However, when faced with real-world hurdles to this absolutism, the company has had to institute moderation not just to retain advertisers, but also its users. Hate speech, incitement to violence, misinformation, and bullying were regular challenges for the platform to deal with. Despite its progress in moderation, the platform can still be immensely toxic for its most marginalized users. People of color, minority groups, women, and LGBTQI+ people often become targets of visceral hatred and doxing.

Mr. Musk should know a thing or two about this too. He is known to release his legion of followers on critics, knowing full well that his harsh comments will launch a massive doxing campaign against said critics. For instance, Mr. Musk called a man involved in a rescue operation in Thailand a pedophile, with no proof whatsoever, later recanting his comments with a ‘he insulted me, so I insulted him’ argument. More recently, he targeted Twitter’s head lawyer when she expressed her displeasure with Mr. Musk’s purchase of the platform. As anticipated, a barrage of hateful comments was subsequently directed toward her. 

Granted, Mr. Musk cannot be held personally responsible for the comments his many followers make on his behalf. However, his core belief in libertarianism and free-speech absolutism relies on a sense of personal responsibility, which becomes even more important for a public figure such as himself, with a substantial following. 

When Mr. Musk cannot himself be responsible for his speech, how does he expect every single one of Twitter’s 330 million users to be responsible for theirs? 

The sustainability of Musk’s plan to privatize Twitter. Is it economical?

While Mr. Musk has stated that financial considerations are not on his list of concerns right now, profitability (or at the very least, sustainability) will remain essential if Twitter is to survive. This would become a major challenge for the company if, as Mr. Musk has stated, it is to go private. While this would reduce accountability to shareholders, thus furthering his stated free-speech goal, it would increase dependence on advertising. This too, however, is thrown into a tailspin as Mr. Musk has also stated his intention to reduce dependence on advertisers. 

He instead wants to primarily rely on a subscription model for the website. But subscription models tend to work better in the Global North as opposed to the Global South, while the latter is where the potential for user acquisition growth lies. How long then will Twitter be able to sustain itself is in question. 

Mr. Musk has undertaken an enormous amount of debt, against his shares in Tesla, to finance his very expensive pet project. Further, he has financed the difference through a great personal expense, which is estimated at a boggling $21 billion. The question then becomes not just of the survivability of Twitter, but also of his enormous auto-cyber-space empire. Already, Tesla’s shares have taken a bigger fall than Twitter’s own. Mr. Musk’s empire itself presents its own set of pressure points that Twitter will now have to contend with. 

Acquisition of Twitter as a global cybersecurity issue.

Social media giants like Twitter are no longer merely business platforms. They are global platforms for politics and enterprise. Hence, the acquisition and control of  Twitter is a challenge for global cybersecurity.

By acquiring Twitter and adding it to his portfolio of companies – together with the likes of Starlink and Neuralink – one is not mistaken to assume that Mr. Musk could be inadvertently assembling a massive global surveillance tool. After all, he swore that part of making Twitter better than ever is by authenticating all its real human users, potentially allowing authoritarian governments to identify dissidents, whistleblowers and political opponents.

Besides being a venue for courteous public debates, we believe that social media platforms need to also function as collective social controls against misinformation. Further, control over social media platforms allows for the control of inter and intra-national narratives, giving the holder the ability to subtly sway the moral compass of humanity over time. Mr. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter will give him the ability to determine normatively what constitutes free speech and what are its outer bounds. 

In Richelieu; The Conspiracy (1839), English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote the famous line: “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Fast forward almost 200 years later, a tweet spreads much faster, reaches many more people, and proves much mightier than some written words by pen. 

Twitter’s global influence is unmistakable as the platform is used by people in power. CEOs to presidents and even the Pope use their tweets to convey messages to millions of followers. If you don’t think those 280 characters in your tweet are powerful, think again. 

Just in the past five years, we have witnessed how influential every tweet by Donald Trump was during his presidency. Mr. Trump’s tweets have impacted global financial markets by adding significant uncertainties to both US and Chinese stock markets during the “trade war” initiated by his government.

Twitter itself decided to permanently suspend Donald Trump’s account, after his two tweets in the aftermath of the 2021 Capitol attack were deemed in violation of its Glorification of Violence policy. This action speaks volumes of Twitter’s struggle against its intrinsic power, a move that incited mixed critiques from both the Left and Right of American politics. 

We are not against the idea of private ownership of technology, but as English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in his Meditationes Sacrae (1597): “ipsa scientia potestas est” (“knowledge itself is power”). Social media technology – as derivatives of knowledge – is a tremendous form of power in this digital 21st century. 

But a billionaire – with a dubious record on minority rights and union-busting – having the final say on what constitutes hate speech or misinformation, what is acceptable speech, and who gets to convey it, is a dangerous precedent.

The perils of free-speech absolutism. A majoritarian platform for a majoritarian world.

In some ways, Mr. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is appropriate for a time when majoritarianism is rising around the world. Across the globe, majority communities and groups are utilizing their brute force to mold and bend institutions and governance mechanisms, often overturning the tenets of democracy on their head and for their benefit. Freedom of religion, for instance, is frequently weaponized to curb the rights of religious minorities and women. 

It seems natural then, for Twitter, the world’s town square, to also take a majoritarian turn, potentially making the platform less hospitable towards historically marginalized groups. 

However, we must not, at the very least, mistake this as a cry for the restoration of absolute free speech, which, by definition, is a chimera. Since we are deeply critical of majoritarianism rising all over the world, we must apply the same impartial concern towards billionaires who, in the name of free speech, aspire for majoritarian control over the world’s town square.

Picture: USAFA Hosts Elon Musk [Image 17 of 17], by Trevor Cokley, Public Domain

Samuel Pablo Pareira is a Master in International Affairs graduate of the Graduate Institute and former Senior Editor of The Graduate Press. Indonesian born and raised in Jakarta, he was a business journalist for CNBC Indonesia, with extensive coverage on the archipelagic country’s trade, manufactures, and commodities. He also covered Indonesian politics. You can reach him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram.

Keshav Khanna is a Master in International Affairs graduate of the Graduate Institute and co-founder of Tech-Sec Initiative at the Institute. His specialisation is in Strategic and Contemporary Security. He has previously worked with Artificial Intelligence policy in development and security. Keshav’s forays into digital media include digital journalism, podcasting and reportage. You can reach him on Twitter and Linkedin

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