Elon Musk has made a pitch to buy Twitter which has been unanimously approved by the Twitter board. While the deal still needs to be accepted by shareholders and is subject to regulatory review, Nicolas Vega, writing for CNBC, says that Twitter CEO Parag Agrawi expects the deal will close in the next three to six months. In a statement released after the forty-four billion dollar deal was reached, Musk called Twitter “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
But this begs a huge question: should a multi-billionaire ever be the guardian (especially self-appointed guardian) of free speech? How is that possible in a free society, where marginalized voices—especially the poor and people of color—struggle to be heard? One can only imagine what norms of free speech were bent or broken by Musk on his way to accumulating such enormous wealth?
Musk has framed his pursuit of Twitter as one necessary to preserve “free speech,” but he is vague on the details. He has been critical of Twitter in the past, suggesting that the platform stifles free speech and engages in “censorship.”
David Leonhart, writing in the NY Times, states that Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX and currently the world’s richest man, “calls himself a ‘free speech absolutist,’ [and] has suggested that he will be less aggressive than Twitter’s current management about blocking some content — including misinformation, in all likelihood. He plans to take the company private, which will give him tighter control than he would have over a public company.”
And what happens when free speech runs smack up against Musk’s economic interests. His companies have massive investments in China. Will unfettered speech about human rights or cutting-edge cultural issues prevail? Or will Twitter capitulate to the economic sway of the vast, tightly controlled Chinese market, as Warner Brothers has done with the new Harry Potter film? Domestically, the financial future of SpaceX is closely bound to the Defense Department; how will the high stakes decisions between these two entities impact Musk’s definition of “free speech”?
Musk’s behavior has often been erratic and it leaves one to wonder if anyone so untethered to real-world accountability in these matters—he is rich enough to pretty much do whatever he wants—should be the arbiter of free speech under the law. Leonhart continues, “He is a self-styled libertarian without an ideology. But is not having an ideology an ideology unto itself?” It seems to this writer that Musk does have an ideology which is accumulating as much money as possible irrespective of the fallout.
Will “more free speech” allow for increased incendiary rhetoric? More bullying? More misogynistic, racist and homophobic on-line behavior? More gasoline thrown on the already simmering coals of our fragile and divided public discourse? Where will we get the guidelines to set appropriate parameters for an informed, constructive social discourse? Words matter. Who will promote the common good if we designate our billionaires as arbiters of free speech? Despite his protestations to the contrary, Musk’s purchase of Twitter seems like a very bad idea for the wellbeing of “free speech” in our society.