Elon Musk: Protector or Destroyer of Free Speech?
Twitter’s new boss wants to ensure that all speech “that matches the law” can be shared on the platform. What could this mean for users around the world?
It has been quite the eventful few weeks over at Twitter. After becoming the majority shareholder of the company, Elon Musk turned down a seat on its board of directors and reached a deal to buy the company outright for a whopping $44,000,000,000. Even for the world’s richest man, it was quite the sum to fork out. Should the deal go south, he would still have to pay a $1,000,000,000 fee to the company.
Musk, a prolific and at times controversial user of the social media platform himself, has been very open about what he feels are Twitter’s overly stringent moderation policies. Over the years, Twitter has famously taken down posts and banned accounts of even the most prolific public figures in order to protect its users from harm and disinformation. One notable example would be the permanent ban of President Donald Trump’s infamous account in 2021.
Musk has compared Twitter to a town square where unfettered opinions ought to be shared without fear of being silenced. His self-prescribed status as a “free speech absolutist” and his critique of what he perceives as over-censorship on the platform has motivated him to pull back from some of the platform’s moderation policies.
This has drawn all manner of responses from people all across the divide. Let’s take a look at these perspectives and maybe use a little bit of that free speech to draw a more balanced conclusion of what the likely outcome from all this would be.
Many of those who are most vocal in their support of Musk’s vision for the future of Twitter appear to be from the side whose views seemingly clash with the platform’s policies. Politically, these are usually people with more right-leaning and conservative views.
Praising Musk as the savior of free speech, they have often felt that they have been unfairly censored by Twitter whom they believe are in favor of views from the other side of the political fence (although statistics claim otherwise). If Musk’s plans come true, they may soon be able to share their controversial and at times, hateful rhetoric once more. However, they should not speak for everyone in support of this.
While this may be the case in a more American context, there are ordinary people from around the world who can find a platform through Twitter to share genuine and possibly important views that they may be unable to convey through other mediums in their own countries. India for example has been pressuring Twitter to take down accounts that were critical of its government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Under Musk, one would imagine Twitter would not entertain such a notion.
To some, Twitter may be the only voice they can have to share information and opinions to the rest of the world. At times, these people may face reprisal from authoritarian governments and risk their lives and liberty by sharing their views. While the freedom to speak does not always protect one from the consequences that come after, it allows a voice for someone who may not have been heard otherwise. In that aspect, Musk’s proposed loosening of censorship restrictions can be looked at positively.
Be it allowing hateful opinions to crawl out more easily or giving a voice to the most marginalised people, having people speak more freely regardless of their views will allow for more discourse, awareness and for better or worse, create better representation among all manner of people. Looking at it like that, Elon Musk is most certainly the protector of free speech.
That being said, there is always the other side of the picture to consider.
For those who praise Musk for his commitment to free speech, there are just as many who are concerned over it. They come in two categories: Those who believe that unfettered views will create misinformation and violence; and those who feel that Musk’s ambition will end up achieving the exact opposite outcome and end up censoring others instead.
Let’s look at the first category. In its earlier days, Twitter, like most other blossoming social media platforms, prided itself on its ability to allow every sort of opinion to be shared. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costlo referred to the platform as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” back in 2011. In the years to follow however, social media has developed. No longer a place to air individual opinions, it is now a place where people can pass things off as fact and is a breeding ground to rally others towards all manner of causes.
Twitter in particular has been used to spread all manner of misinformation ranging from anti-vax rhetoric to those infamous election fraud claims. It has even been used to incite crime, violence and terrorism as well as spread all kinds of defamatory statements and obscene content. Thus, Twitter has taken painstaking efforts to curb the spread of such information; efforts that many fear will be undone when Elon Musk takes over.
Now let’s look at the second category of detractors. Aside from curbing the spread of dangerous and misleading information, Twitter has also strived to create a safe and inclusive platform for all of its users. This is not just in the form of physical safety but safety in terms of providing a space for minority communities to bring across their views without fear of harassment or bullying.
Many people from these groups fear that their own opinions will soon be stifled due to the bombardment of dissenting views that may serve to invalidate and insult their causes. By allowing a dominant and vocal majority to share their views indiscriminately, it will silence the views of the minority and run contrary to Musk’s intended goals. After all, it can’t be freedom of speech if not everybody feels free to speak. Thus, from this viewpoint it seems that Elon Musk may very well end up destroying the freedom of speech for certain people.
Now that we have explored both perspectives in terms of the reaction to Musk’s plan, let us now attempt to assess the most plausible scenario and reach a balanced conclusion.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is simple. Be it Twitter or any other platform in existence, there will never be such a thing as total freedom of speech. It is simply impossible as the ramifications would inevitably lead to complete anarchy. It seems that Musk himself is aware of this and has clarified his definition of free speech to be speech that “matches the law.” Let us explore what that means.
Let’s take America for example, a country with some of the most lax laws on freedoms of speech and expression. Even in a place where such freedoms are abundant, there are laws in place as to what can and cannot be said. Words cannot be used to incite violence, spread malicious falsehoods or be used to threaten the President among other things that pose a risk to the general health and safety of the public.
On the complete other end of the spectrum, countries like China stringently monitor what their citizens say online. Even the EU is taking steps to ensure that social media companies are accountable for the transgressions of its users and obliges platforms such as Twitter to remain safe and inclusive.
It goes to show that whatever law, Elon Musk is trying to match in order to push for more freedom of speech, there will be limits as to how far exactly he can go as to allowing what others share on Twitter. Assuming he takes the widest reaching and most liberal interpretation of freedom of speech, users on both ends of the divide ought to bear some things in mind.
For those in support of Musk’s plans, the freedom of speech does not equate to the freedom to misinform, incite violence or use the platform for any kind of obscene or nefarious purposes. It is, however, the freedom to share how they, as individuals, feel about any issue without the fear of being silenced by the platform regardless of their viewpoints.
For those against Musk’s plans, they should bear in mind that everyone is free to say whatever they feel about any particular issue. Not everyone will agree with a particular point of view and this does not automatically make someone a bigot. The freedom of speech means the freedom to disagree and perhaps unfortunately to some, the freedom to criticize and insult. However, that of course should go both ways.
From a business standpoint, a platform which allows its users complete and unfettered discretion to say and share whatever they want cannot possibly be sustainable. No investor or sponsor will ever want to touch a potentially dangerous and unprofitable business. Thus, there has to be some kind of threshold as to what can be shared on Twitter under Musk’s leadership.
Using a little bit of my own freedom of speech, let me share my humble and perhaps inconsequential views on this matter. Personally, I believe that everyone has the right to express their feelings and opinions about anything. It doesn’t have to agree with my own views or the views of the rest of the world provided that it is a clear, individual opinion regardless of how hurtful or ignorant it may seem.
It is when words are falsely passed off as fact, used to incite violence or unfairly used to silence and discredit others where certain measures should be in place simply for the sake of keeping people safe and well-informed. Aside from that, people ought to be free to share how they feel and it is up to us whether we want to discuss their viewpoints further with them or not.
I believe that the best way to get a balanced view on any issue is to see every possible perspective that people may have about it. So, if it is Elon Musk’s dream to see Twitter used to allow for all manner of opinions to be shared while continuing to ensure public security, then I am all for it.
While there is still quite a bit for Musk to do to seal the deal with Twitter and properly implement his plans, regardless of his final outline for the platform, it will be up to how Twitter’s 400 million users continue to use the platform to share their views and interact with others that will ultimately determine if Elon Musk had protected or destroyed free speech.
While we’re at it, why don’t you share your own opinions on how you feel about this. I’m very interested to hear all of your thoughts on this too! Until then, take care!
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