Social media are awash in problematic and near hysterical responses to the announcement that Elon Musk is cleared to buy Twitter. Having paid little attention to Musk, I have nothing useful to say about the acquisition as such.
I am, however, interested in the assertion that Musk is a “free speech absolutist” and that he will, therefore, apply that principle to his management of Twitter with dire consequences. Many observers believe this means Trump’s Twitter account will be restored, with predictable results. Trump himself reportedly says he won’t rejoin Twitter but anyone who has been mentally functioning for the past five years knows Trump’s word is meaningless. Meanwhile, people like Trump’s children have remained on Twitter all along, promoting their schemes, lying and all the rest. Is the furor just about Trump?
In any case what does “free speech absolutist” mean? Yesterday, Musk tweeted this:
By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.
Putting aside the logical issues with those sentences, if Musk really means that free speech must “match the law,” there would be little to worry about. Summarized, the law is that speech that is, for example, in furtherance of a criminal conspiracy or that is demonstrably false and harmful may be regulated, not only by private entities but by the government itself. The classic example is shouting fire in a crowded and darkened theater. Such “speech” is dangerous, and the speaker may be held to account for it. Similarly, solicitation of a crime combined with actual steps toward executing the crime may be prosecuted. Speech that is normally covered by, for example, attorney-client privilege that prevents compulsory disclosure loses its privileged status if, for example, the attorney-client communication is part of a criminal enterprise.
If, on the other hand, Musk means that going forward Twitter will not discipline participants and will depend entirely on the government to do so, we will have an example of the most cynical form of disinformation in history. Why? Because Musk knows that the government is not going to undertake direct regulation of social media platforms like Twitter and claiming to depend on “the law” to do so is the height of cynical misdirection.
Mr. Musk may, on the other hand, actually believe that speech is absolute in its “freedom,” so that, for example, Donald Trump should be free to claim in Future Twitter that the 2020 election was stolen and that no consequences should attach to such false claims. Maybe.
I don’t know for sure what Musk actually thinks. Twitter participants appear to be dropping out in large numbers over fear that Musk will turn Twitter into a platform for free-form lying by right-wing lunatics. Others argue that they will “stay and fight.” Many right-wing conspiracists are rejoicing at what they believe will be the New Twitter where anything goes, including blatantly false statements about important matters like elections. Such statements are already appearing in a multitude of tweets.
Staying and fighting may not be a viable strategy if indeed Twitter is going to adopt the policy that anything goes. If it does, it will almost certainly and very quickly attract the Flat Earth and other crazies who have nothing useful to say and are not open to reason. In that case, Twitter may well die, and Musk will lose a lot of money.
I say that because I am confident that a social media platform of Twitter’s scope will not long endure as a home for lunatic fringe participants. There are, of course, plenty of them already participating. Usually, the best approach is to just block them.
Maybe Twitter really is worth $44 billion but the investment could easily be squandered by turning the platform into what Trump’s Truth Social was supposed to be but never achieved. The good news is that it won’t take too long to see which way the mendacity is blowing.
Twitter as a free-to-lie/cheat/steal platform, Twitter as the new home for Fox News and the like, can be replaced by a platform that respects truth, rejects disinformation and honors the true meaning of the idea of “free speech.” Call me naïve, if you like, but $44 billion for a platform that promotes false information is probably a bad investment. We’ll see.