Jake McPhail ’24
As many of us have noticed, Elon Musk has come to the forefront of the battleground to defend the paradigm of American civil liberty: the quintessential Bill of Rights provision for “freedom of speech.” He has always criticized Twitter and other tech giants for “censoring” certain types of speech or accounts who espouse said speech. The most notable of these accounts was former President Donald Trump’s, whose social media accounts were removed after his roles in spreading misinformation surrounding the 2020 presidential election and inciting violence during the January 6th insurrection at the United States Capitol.
Musk has stood strong with this stance, even unwilling to block Russian propaganda and media outlets when restoring the internet to regions of Ukraine that lost connection during the Russian invasion. He tweeted on March 5th, 2022, that “Starlink has been told by some governments (not Ukraine) to block Russian news sources. We will not do so unless at gunpoint. Sorry to be a free speech absolutist.”
The problem with saying something as ignorant as this is continuing the dissemination of propaganda to the very people that are watching their homes bombed, schools burned, and relatives massacred. It is not being a “free speech absolutist,” it is being a co-conspirator with the Kremlin. Is the propaganda from an autocratic regime not the antithesis of “freedom of speech?”
Recently, he has garnered the attention of the CEO and board of directors at Twitter Inc. after purchasing more than 9% of their stock, becoming one of their largest shareholders. Furthermore, in a letter to Twitter Chairmen Bret Taylor, he offered to purchase 100% of outstanding shares, transitioning Twitter into a private company. He wrote: “I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy. However, since making my investment I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company. As a result, I am offering to buy 100% of Twitter … My offer is my best and final offer and if it is not accepted, I would need to reconsider my position as a shareholder. Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.”
He has always expressed interest in making changes at Twitter, but this is the first and largest step he has taken thus far. This being said, the remaining issue with his offer, and the way it was presented, is that he is conflating freedom of speech with freedom of consequences. He has transformed a battle once reserved for the MAGA universe to one of centrist tech-guys.
If we reflect on the people who have been “censored” by Twitter, it is people who, again, either espouse misinformation, lies, and propaganda, or people who incite violence. I understand that people should not face legal recourse for their speech, save for maybe speech that incites violence. That is the function of the First Amendment in the United States Constitution after all.
The fact of the matter is that Twitter is a private online platform for people to spread all types of ideas and speech. Therefore, Twitter is responsible for what is said on their platform and the real-world implications thereof. By allowing potentially dangerous information to proliferate on its platform, like we saw during the 2020 election, the company and its shareholders would face a multitude of negative consequences.
Figures like Musk are looking at free speech inside of a vacuum, treating it as some abstract principle rather than analyzing it in any real world context. By allowing these dangerous types of speech back onto the platform, Twitter would not be allowing “free speech,” it would be acquiescing to the warped arguments of those who wish to spread lies and incite violence.